PASADENA, Calif. – It was a rare sight after Los Angeles County restaurants were restricted to takeout to reduce the spread of the coronavirus: tables and chairs set up outside the Pie 'N Burger shop in Pasadena.
Owner Michael Osborn explained to two men who approached him Monday that the city famous for its Rose Parade had marched to its own beat and kept outdoor dining open.
“God bless Pasadena!” the two exclaimed, placing their order and taking a seat at one of the sidewalk tables, Osborn recounted.
Pasadena has become an island in the nation's most populous county, where a surge of COVID-19 cases last week led to a three-week end to outdoor dining and then a broader stay-home order that took effect Monday.
The decision by Pasadena health authorities to buck Los Angeles County has been a relief to restaurateurs who have struggled to stay afloat amid closures, ever-changing rules and attempts to keep workers on the job and money in the till. Even Pasadena has made changes, mandating that only people in the same household can gather starting Wednesday, which applies to outdoor seating.
“We’re not out of the woods yet, but every day that goes by is a blessing that we can keep the outdoor dining open,” Osborn said.
Infections and hospitalizations in Los Angeles County have been rising sharply in the past few weeks, hitting an all-time high Tuesday of more than 7,500 new confirmed cases and the rate of positive tests rising to 12% from 7% a week ago.
The county's health order, which only allows restaurants to prepare food to go, applies to about 10 million residents except those in Pasadena or Long Beach — cities that have their own public health departments and can set their own rules.
Long Beach, a city of about 460,000, also closed outdoor dining. It implemented a stay-home order Wednesday, mostly mirroring the county's: urging people to stay inside as much as possible, further restricting store capacity and banning gatherings except for protests and religious services.
Closing dining at 31,000 county restaurants drew backlash from owners and some politicians who say there's no evidence eating outside is a big risk. Health officials counter that eating without a mask raises the threat of transmission.
Owners argue it will force more people to gather indoors, where the virus is known to spread easier and no one is enforcing rules.
A divided LA County Board of Supervisors rejected a measure Nov. 24 that would have kept outdoor dining open. The Los Angeles City Council passed an urgent resolution last week asking the county to rescind the order, and Beverly Hills took similar action Tuesday.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti noted the pain restaurant employees face and on Wednesday announced a program to provide a one-time $800 stipend to some 4,000 food-service workers. Applications open next week.
Garcetti said 4 of every 10 food service employees have lost jobs this year. He said the initiative is “designed to deliver relief and a little peace of mind to some of our most vulnerable workers."
The California Restaurant Association took the county to court last week, arguing the county could provide no evidence that outdoor dining creates a greater risk of infection. A Los Angeles Superior Court judge, who did not block the ban last week, on Wednesday set a Dec. 8 hearing for the county to show evidence, attorney Dennis Ellis said.
“The winds of opinion have blown decidedly in our favor, with many people believing that the outdoor dining ban is overreaching,” Ellis said.
Pasadena, a city of 140,000 at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains, has mostly followed the county's lead during the pandemic.
But the home of the Rose Bowl and California Institute of Technology decided to chart its own course last week. Because it's smaller and can more closely monitor its 600 restaurants, officials said they chose more aggressive enforcement.
“We literally have seen COVID cases in a large percentage of businesses across the city,” Pasadena spokeswoman Lisa Derderian said. “To single out restaurants was unfair.”
County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said she couldn't predict whether Pasadena's decision would impact the county's infection rate. Given the city's size, it may be able to ensure safety measures are followed, she said.
But she noted that lack of compliance was not why dining shut down.
“We are closing restaurants for outdoor dining for three weeks because people who are there are not able to wear their face coverings,” Ferrer said. “There’s much greater risk of transmission both to workers and to other people at your table and other people that are eating at the other tables.”
Over the weekend, seven Pasadena restaurants were closed after inspectors found violations ranging from staff not wearing plastic shields over masks to seating people indoors, Derderian said. All had been approved to reopen after correcting errors.
Inspectors also shut down a car show, broke up birthday parties and soccer matches in parks, and warned people exercising to wear masks, she said.
If the city doesn't stop outdoor dining altogether, it could be forced to by Gov. Gavin Newsom, who suggested Monday that a more “drastic” stay-home order could be in the works as the state tries to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed.
At Lucky Baldwins, a pub in Pasadena's Old Town, business picked up Monday around happy hour. A patio that was expanded into an alley was about half full, and servers wore masks and face shields.
Anthony Angulo, who had driven from nearby Altadena to meet a friend, was glad he had an option to get a bite and some beers.
“A lot of these business owners are struggling, and they don’t need to be hamstrung. They’re doing the best that they can,” he said. “Nobody is going inside standing shoulder to shoulder.”
Owner Peggy Simonian said she was relieved Pasadena allowed two locations to stay open. She had to close a sister cafe in nearby Sierra Madre under the county order.
“I feel stuck,” Simonian said. “I can’t move forward, can’t move backwards, can’t do anything. I can’t make this situation any better.”
Melley reported from Los Angeles.