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Eli Vera, owner of Mojitos, a Cuban restaurant that opened at Library Plaza, says banning outdoor dining punishes restaurants trying to do everything to keep people safe.

In the City of San Fernando, restaurant owners and employees across the board feel the rug is being pulled out from under their feet.

It has always been difficult for Mom and Pop restaurants to compete with fast food and drive-thru chain restaurants that have established themselves in the small town. But family restaurants, like Hanzo Sushi, U Crave Café & Grill, Papa Juan’s Baja Grill and new Mojitos (which just opened in August) believed they were complying with safety regulations, offering healthier options, and were part of the effort to revitalize outdoor dining in the City.

They soon found out it would be challenging, but were geared up to slowly build. What they could not anticipate was the impact of COVID-19.

“It sucks. We were finally getting up in the flow,” lamented Vanessa Gonzalez, manager at Hanzo Sushi.

The restaurant would set up five-to-seven tables under a white tent right outside their doors. It also bought heat lamps to keep diners comfortable in the cold. People would enjoy eating outside under the tent featuring a couple of chandeliers.

But all that’s gone now, as county health officials have ordered restaurants, wineries and breweries to stop offering on-site dining — even outdoors — for three weeks due to the high rates of COVID-19 transmission in the community and county.

The eateries can only offer delivery and take-out. Breweries and wineries remain open for retail sales at 20% occupancy.

Finances Already Depleted

Restaurant owners continue to balk at the decision to prohibit in-person dining, saying they have spent thousands of dollars to open outdoor patios and implement extensive safety protocols. They also contend there is no evidence linking in-person dining to the current surge in virus cases.

County officials have countered that such dining is the only environment that allows people to spend extended amounts of time in relatively close proximity without masks.

The ban on in-person dining was triggered last week when the county met a five-day threshold of averaging more than 4,000 new COVID-19 cases per day.

And the latest surge in cases shows little, if any, containment. On Tuesday, Dec. 1, county health officials reported a record-setting daily number of new infections and a pandemic-high level of hospitalized, possibly setting the stage for a state-mandated stay-at-home order.

The county Department of Public Health announced 7,593 new COVID-19 infections, topping the previous daily record of 6,124 set just last week. Health officials stressed that increased testing is not the cause of the spike, noting that the average daily rate of people testing positive for the coronavirus is now nearly 12%, up from 7% a week ago and about 4% a month ago. 

Based on that transmission rate, health officials estimated one of every 145 people in the county are now infected with the virus and transmitting it to others.

A total of 2,316 people were reported to be hospitalized due to the virus, topping the previous peak level of 2,232 set in July. Health officials are warning that hospital numbers will continue to rise in conjunction with the increase in cases, potentially gobbling up normally available hospital space by Christmas.

The latest media reports on Wednesday, Dec. 2, also noted that the City of San Fernando is currently experiencing an infection rate two times greater than that of the county as a whole — 1,044 cases per 100,000 people, compared with the county’s rate of 496 per 100,000, according to government records. That figure surpasses Pacoima,  which has an infection rate of 993 per 100,000 people. 

The new restrictions are wreaking havoc on already depleted finances, and the impact is being felt by workers at the businesses, both restaurants owners and workers say.

“We’re all getting our hours cut to half or less. Tips are not great anymore and it’s all around the holidays, which is unfortunate,” Gonzalez said.

She said the take-out only restrictions have cut sales by nearly 50%, and that means fewer hours for all workers.

Eli Vera, owner of Mojitos, a Cuban restaurant that opened at Library Plaza, says banning outdoor dining punishes restaurants trying to do everything to keep people safe.

“We don’t let anybody inside the restaurant. We addressed and complied with COVID restrictions. I think they (restrictions) are excessive. We are responsible, prudent. People can make decisions if they come to our establishment or not. I don’t know what else we could do,” he said.

Vera built an awning outside the restaurant ringed with small lights to provide cover for the new tables and chairs he recently bought, and for the past two weeks, business had started to pickup.

He says take-out orders and deliveries simply can’t make up the loss of sales. When people go out to eat, Vera said, they’re more likely to order dessert and drinks, which help restaurants make up profits.

For example, Vera had just purchased an espresso machine that is now just sitting without use.

Restaurants without patio space thought they had found a creative solution that could give them a fighting chance. For Mall restaurants, City officials had blocked off San Fernando Road and outside seating was created. Diners could order their food from local businesses and have it served to them al fresco.

Some restaurants were bustling with customers eating at the spaced out tables on the sidewalk and the whole area had turned into a pedestrian-only bevy of activity on the weekends.

But the new restrictions have shut all of that down.

Things were quiet last Saturday, Nov. 28. The tables and chairs were gone. Customers got out of their cars to pick up orders before leaving again.

In many instances, restaurants say food delivery services take another bite out of their earnings and leave them with pennies on the dollar.

Others have also questioned whether shutting down outside dining is the solution when the data points to private gatherings where no one wears masks or takes precautions.

“We have not been able to see what the county has to support the notion that outdoor dining at 50% capacity, consistent with what the governor has authorized in his blueprint, is inappropriate and needs to be shut down,” said California Restaurant Association attorney Dennis Ellis.

The association sued the county in an effort to overturn the county’s plan to end in-person dining, but a judge declined to immediately intervene.

“The recent order with no stated scientific basis from L.A. County singles out a specific industry and could jeopardize thousands of jobs,” Jot Condie, president/CEO of the California Restaurant Association, said in a statement announcing the legal challenge.

“There are thousands of restaurants and many thousands more employees who could be out on the street right before the holiday season.”

Businesses Feeling Targeted

Restaurant owners who feel “targeted” by this latest round of county restrictions are asking themselves if they can go through this another time, or will this be the final straw.

“I don’t think it’s fair,” Gonzalez said of the restrictions. In her opinion, authorities could have limited the number of customers instead of banning outdoor dining altogether.

“Restaurants are doing everything to keep people safe. We’re putting out tables apart, doing everything we can to make sure everyone is distanced and everything’s clean,” she adds.

Health officials say the restrictions, and a plea for people to stay home as much as possible, are meant to prevent a worsening health scenario.

Dr. Christina Ghaly, county health services director, said the number of people hospitalized due to the virus had jumped by 70% in the past two weeks, with the county now averaging about 300 new admissions daily.

“Based on the current estimate for (the virus transmission rate) and assuming that there’s no change in people’s behavior that would affect transmissions, there will likely be shortages in the number of hospital beds, and especially in ICU beds or intensive-care unit beds, over the next two to four weeks,” Ghaly said.

The doctor noted that given the current transmission rate, the number of hospitalized patients could double in two weeks, and quadruple in a month. She said hospitals have “surge” plans to increase the number of beds, but the availability of health care workers to staff those beds and treat patients is more limited.

Affected Workers

The restrictions will certainly impact employees who depend on tips and the work on-site diners provide. Vera also says he will be forced to cut hours for servers and other workers.

Jocelyn Trejo, who works as a server at Papa Juan’s Baja Grill, also located within Library Plaza in San Fernando, said her hours were reduced to 10-15 per week.

“I have to apply for EDD (unemployment) to see if I qualify” for partial help, she said.

The two dishwashers were also temporarily laid off. If no one is sitting at outdoor tables eating, there are no dishes to wash.

“This hurts big time — a lot,” said Trejo. She said the business owner also bought heat lamps and fans during the summer to keep his customers warm and cool. And they had implemented every safety precaution, including having disinfectant readily available at each table.

Trejo also took her own safety precautions, especially because her 1-year-old son was born premature.

“I disinfect my car. I change shoes and clothes, and wash hands when I come home,” she said.

She said that when the pandemic restrictions were first ordered in March, they had a lot of take-out orders. But lately those, too, had started to dry up, from approximately 20 to eight daily. She doesn’t know whether customers will return to ordering as they did before.

Oscar Cortez, manager at U Crave Café & Grill, also hopes those orders keep them afloat.

“We’ll make ends meet,” he said, but noted the restrictions do hurt them financially.

Still, Cortez understands why the limitations are being ordered.

“Some people are still together and partying and sometimes you have to sacrifice some things to get a positive outcome,” he said.