Although state health orders forced the closure of all outdoor dining service throughout California early last month, policy in Pasadena permits restaurateurs to maintain their outdoor seating arrangements — without wait staff service — for members of the public to use, leaving what some worry is a loophole in public safety measures.
While the practice of keeping outdoor furnishings out is allowed by Pasadena, only a handful of local eateries are doing so, according to city spokeswoman Lisa Derderian.
In early December, Pasadena, which has its own municipal health department and thus operates under its own health orders separate from the county, had allowed outdoor dining to continue even as Los Angeles County public health officials ordered it to cease in all surrounding cities.
But a statewide stay-at-home order that took effect on Dec. 6, as the COVID-19 cases spiked to unprecedented levels, brought an end to true outdoor dining in Pasadena.
“At this point, we’re allowing restaurateurs to keep their furnishings out, although few have done so, and under no circumstances is ‘service’ allowed,” city spokeswoman Lisa Derderian said. “If the public sees any violations, we ask they call the Citizen Service Center at (626) 744-7311.”
Most restaurants promptly took down their outdoor arrangements when the state order took effect, city officials said in an email last week.
“The City has not mandated this removal but does encourage it, as it preserves these fixtures for future use when outdoor dining is restored and helps to avoid liability and ancillary issues,” according to the email.
“In that regard, should a permitted use choose to maintain tables, chairs and other fixtures for public use during the time that outdoor dining is prohibited, individuals using these areas must wear a mask, maintain physical distancing, and not gather with anyone outside of their immediate household,” the email continued. “Littering, sleeping overnight, smoking, and alcohol consumption are prohibited, and the areas must close nightly from 10:00 p.m. [to] 5:00 a.m. The restaurant is responsible for enforcement of these requirements at their tables, whether located on public or private property.”
At El Cholo restaurant in The Paseo shopping center on Colorado Boulevard, owner Blair Salisbury said he’s noticed people using his large seating even while the business is closed when he reviews security videos.
“I see people sitting on our patio,” he said. “We’re next to a P.F. Chang’s, and they don’t have any patio. So people came over and sit on our patio and enjoy their Chinese food,” he said.
“I’ve had people ask if they can do it. I have no problem with that, if they want to get, take out and go sit on the patio,” he said.
Nonetheless, he said, “I think it’s better just to let them take it home, because if they’re sitting on your patio and your staff’s there, they’re exposing your staff,” he said.
At least one restaurant has promoted its serviceless patio via social media in mid-December, urging patrons to “order your TAKEOUT tonight and come sit and enjoy eating it safely…”
Salisbury said he believed such a tactic was “too loud.”
“We just need to get through this because so many restaurants are going to close down,” he said.
Salisbury said in Orange County, where family members operate restaurants, serviceless patio dining is much more common. “And the patios down there are packed,” he said.
The city of Manhattan Beach had a similar policy to Pasadena’s in place until Sunday, when city officials announced they were disallowing serviceless outdoor seating at restaurants due to a spike in local COVID-19 infections, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Like many other restaurateurs, however, Salisbury said he wasn’t convinced banning outdoor dining was the best way to go about stemming the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
“When people came to my restaurant for outdoor dining, the way it worked was they wore masks. When they came in, they sat at the table. While they’re eating, they took the mask off, but while they weren’t eating, they left the mask on,” he said. Servers wore both masks and face shields.
“But now it seems with the surges… we’ll get GrubHub and DoorDash orders for two entrees, but we’re also getting for like 10 and 12 entrees, so people are gathering. When you have 12 entrees, they’re not sitting outdoors, they’re sitting indoors,” according to Salisbury. “And so is it possible the spread of viruses is even worse with them being indoors eating food, rather than being outdoors. I don’t know. It seems to make sense to me.”
Restaurants have been pushed beyond their limits by the restrictions, as evidence by numerous neighboring businesses around El Cholo closing down, Salisbury said.
Even with COVID-19 vaccinations slowly making their way through society, Salisbury said he didn’t envision any kind of full reopening until at least March.
“A lot of restaurants have been, us included, have been living on these PPP loans that the government has given us,” he said. “Without the PPP loan, we wouldn’t be open today.”
Salisbury said the city has seemingly “bent over backwards” to support local restaurants.
Nonetheless, the toll of the pandemic remains severe,” he said.
“My restaurant had 61 employees before last March. When we reopened, we only had 31 come back,” Salisbury said. “We’re doing 45% of our old sales.”
At Gale’s Italian Restaurant on Fair Oaks Avenue, Owner Gale Kohl said she understood if other restaurants elected to keep outdoor furnishings available for the public, but she did not plan to.
“There are definitely restaurants that are going to be doing that,” she said. “And that’s up to them, how they want to do this.”
“I’m very shy about this because I’m very concerned that we do the right things and that I keep my staff and myself safe,” she added.” “I’d rather be safe than sorry.”
Kohl also said she was skeptical of the link between the pandemic’s spread and outdoor dining.
“There is no evidence that it’s spread outdoors, it’s spread indoors,” she said. “So closing down everything outside is kind of ludicrous when you consider that you’re forcing people to gather indoors instead of going outdoors.”
“I know how I am with my clients and my business. And I knew we were really careful. People were not sitting close together. We’re sanitizing everything.”
But she said she realized some businesses have not complied with safety protocols.
“There are places that are not in compliance and they’re not doing the right thing, which is so sad,” she said.
The pandemic and its accompanying protocols have pushed Gale’s, and other restaurants, to their limits.
She, too, said PPP loans and unemployment benefits have kept the business and its employees afloat thus far, “but certainly for me, my staff, my team, it’s not enough,” Kohl said. “They won’t be able to survive this. Many of them we’ll leave. They’ll leave Pasadena, they’ll leave California. They can’t withstand much more. It brings me to tears.”