As the only city in Los Angeles County still permitting outdoor dining, Pasadena has become a culinary attraction for those looking for a meal out, drawing both praise and concern from the local community.
Pasadena broke step with the Los Angeles County Department of Health earlier this month when the county agency ordered a halt to outdoor dining service. But the Pasadena Public Health Department did not follow suit, electing to allow restaurants to continue offering outdoor dining with social distancing precautions and aggressive enforcement efforts in place.
The conflicting policies have made Pasadena the lone island in the county where sitting down for a meal at a restaurant is permitted and drew an influx of visitors from out-of-town to patronize the city’s eateries. But some residents have expressed worry that along with business, the increase in visitors could also be spreading COVID-19.
El Portal restaurant Owner Abel Ramirez said he saw many new faces over the weekend following Thanksgiving.
“We did notice a tremendous difference on Saturday and Sunday,” he said.
In chatting with customers, “I learned that there were people here from Santa Clarita and from Glendale and from other areas of San Fernando Valley… and from West Covina and La Verne.”
“It’s obvious that Pasadena is open. People in surrounding areas will look at us and come and join us,” Ramirez said.
When it comes to the future of the business, “I cannot say that I’m not worried,” he said. “But we also care.”
“We are very careful that we comply with [health restrictions]. There is no reason to be cheating. We will only be cheating ourselves,” Ramirez said.
To-go only service doesn’t fit well at El Portal, he said. When the restaurant was forced to cut back to to-go orders only earlier in the pandemic, business dropped dramatically.
“I’m not an In-N-Out, and I’m not a McDonald’s or any of those, with a drive-thru,” Ramirez said. “We had a lot of restrictions and we were not popular for food-to-go. We are a little more popular now with the services of Door Dash and other delivery services.”
Ramirez said Pasadena restaurants should show gratitude for the city’s consideration by strictly adhering to health precautions.
At the same time, however, “I do not believe that all these spikes, all the high numbers of the coronavirus cases, are coming from restaurants,” he said.
Il Fornaio General Manager Daiano Morassi said he also noticed a lot of new customers last weekend.
“It’s always nice to see new faces and new people,” he said. “Friday and Saturday… more than 50 percent of our customers were new customers.”
There have been times when customers couldn’t be served because the restaurant had already reached its limited capacity, according to Morassi.
While he said he hates to turn anyone away, “We want to keep everybody safe,” Morassi said. “We follow the rules of the city of Pasadena and whatever the county or state does.”
For those who do plan on dining out in Pasadena, Ramirez urged budgeting a little “extra patience.”
Mijares Restaurant Partner and General Manager Rlene Delang said her restaurant also saw an increase in customers last weekend.
“We have noticed that people are calling and asking if we have outdoor dining. So this tells me that they are not regular customers,” she said. “I’m grateful to the city of Pasadena for allowing us to be open.”
As a result, Delang said staff is being extra vigilant when it comes to sanitation and enforcing social distancing.
To avoid crowds and make sure seating is available, “It’s very important to make a reservation. We really want to run our business right now on reservations, because then we know how to control the numbers,” she said. “With people coming into town and wanting to look for someplace to eat, you have to make sure that people are socially distant, that you, in your infrastructure, create that.”
And, “hopefully, we will see the numbers in our city go down. We’re here to protect our family, our employees, and certainly our customers,” Delang said.
“But we do live with the fear that if the governor decides to close the state, Pasadena has no other recourse than to close,” she said.
That, she said, would be an economic disaster.
“If that happens, it means that people will lose their jobs, because when you’re running a restaurant with [only] to-go, you need to get rid of half of your staff in the kitchen. You don’t need as many dishwashers. Your busboys don’t have a job. Your servers don’t have a job,” Delang said.
“You just can’t survive on take-out. The numbers just don’t pan out,” she said.
But not everyone was thrilled with the extra activity.
Elisa Bruley, owner of the Eliza B. women’s clothing store, said what she saw in Old Pasadena over the weekend left her worried.
“In a normal year, I’d be thrilled for the potential bump in revenue. But in a pandemic year, with a virus that’s raging out of control, this isn’t the kind of exposure I welcome,” she said.
“The scene on Saturday in Old Pasadena was chaotic and overwhelming, and frankly, scary. And I couldn’t help but wonder if we were hosting a super-spreader event.”
Bruley said she feared the city’s decision to keep restaurants open for outdoor dining may have been “hasty,” and “without any real consideration for probable side effects, namely, the hundreds of people pouring into the city from all over the Southland to dine out.”
“As a small business owner, I understand the negative impact COVID-19 has had on our livelihoods as well as our employees’ livelihoods, and I get why the city is doing all it can to ensure we keep our doors open,” she said. “We’re all dealing with a lot of uncertainty right now, and we’re constantly pivoting to protect our businesses. But this pandemic is real and the surge in cases is spiking through the roof, and I believe tighter restrictions and further sacrificing are inevitable.”