Michel LeChasseur, owner of Ma’s Italian Kitchen in Burbank, said his business is on its last legs. He also said his restaurant is one of the lucky ones.
LeChasseur said the eatery, which made much of its revenue from its catering services to production studios, is bringing in less than a third of what it did before the COVID-19 pandemic. He had to slash employees’ hours and lay off 14 of his 22 workers. He added that he even chose to forgo his own salary so he could keep paying his workers; his husband’s job is keeping them both afloat.
Still, LeChasseur learned to adjust, though he watched eight friends lose their restaurants during the pandemic. He spread out tables on his restaurant’s patio and bought Plexiglas shields to protect customers. His servers wore gloves and two layers of masks. As the colder months approached, he purchased heaters.
And then he found out he may largely have wasted his money. A Los Angeles County health order that went into effect on Nov. 25 banned outdoor dining to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Meanwhile, indoor malls and essential retail stores may remain open — a policy that LeChasseur calls unfair.
“I am [all for] public safety,” he said. “And listen, if I have to lose my business to save a life, it’s worth it to me. But I should be treated equally with other businesses. I don’t understand, you can go to Walmart right now and have wall-to-wall people … and I cannot serve outside.”
RESTAURANTS PUSH BACK
Businesses in many sectors in L.A. County are operating at strict capacity limits. But LeChasseur said he feels officials are singling out restaurants without providing evidence to show their link with COVID-19 cases.
The ban on outdoor dining, which the county’s public health department announced after a worrying increase in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations, is scheduled to remain in effect until at least Dec. 16. The L.A. County Board of Supervisors narrowly voted down an attempt to reverse the order, 3-2.
Responses to the latest round of restaurant restrictions in the county have ranged from quiet resignation to simmering frustration to direct opposition. The California Restaurant Association sued the county over the ban, arguing — as county Supervisors Kathryn Barger and Janice Hahn did — that there is a lack of evidence that in-person dining is responsible for the rise in cases.
Some supervisors and health officials have argued that in-person dining inherently contributes to the spread of COVID-19 because patrons must remove their masks to eat. Barbara Ferrer, the county’s public health director, said at the end of October that 10-15% of coronavirus cases were connected to a “dining experience.”
A judge recently ordered county officials to provide evidence warranting the ban at another hearing on Tuesday, Dec. 7, according to the Los Angeles Times. However, the judge did not overturn the ban.
Nonetheless, the CRA declared the move a victory.
“As we’ve repeatedly said, their order was arbitrary and targeted restaurants unfairly, without supporting evidence,” Jot Condie, president and CEO of the advocacy group, said in a statement. “This ruling doesn’t mean that outdoor dining can immediately resume in L.A. County, particularly since the county has since issued a stay-at-home order.
“However, it’s our expectation that if the county is unable to produce evidence justifying this decision, then outdoor dining should be allowed to resume as soon as the stay-at-home order is lifted.”
However, recent announcements from state officials weakened the possibility that in-person dining would resume by the end of the year. Gov. Gavin Newsom announced on Thursday that stay-at-home orders would be introduced in regions where ICU capacity is below 15%. The orders, which were expected to go into effect days later, prohibit in-person dining and require hair and nail salons to close. The orders will be lifted only after at least three weeks, and only if more ICU capacity is available.
While the Southern California region is not yet at less than 15% ICU capacity, Newsom said, it along with most of the state is expected to reach that threshold in early December.
David Angulo, managing partner of Morrison Pub in Burbank, said he was worried about the length of time his restaurant wouldn’t be able to offer in-person dining. Business had slowed since the eatery shifted to takeout only, forcing him to cut employees’ hours, he added.
“It’s unfortunate. We’ve only been open about a month and things were going pretty good with our outdoor seating, and this is going to make it really hard for me to stay open,” Angulo said.
NO GUARANTEE OF HELP
LeChasseur also argued that, though L.A. County and California have imposed restrictions on restaurant operations, officials have offered little assistance to help the businesses survive.
The county launched a Keep L.A. Dining Grant program on Thursday, offering $30,000 to restaurants affected by the pandemic, though businesses that had already received funds through other Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act programs administered by the county were not eligible.
On the day it went live, the grant program site crashed. LeChasseur also pointed out that, since the program is taking only 2,500 applications, there is no guarantee he’ll get any aid money.
“They don’t even have basic help for us in place, and they shut us down,” he said.
Of course, many restaurant owners depend on customer loyalty more than on infrequent grants. But Patrick Choi, owner of Moana Hawaiian BBQ, said patrons should try to avoid third-party delivery apps. While his business is receiving many online orders, he said some delivery companies take more than 30% of the profits in exchange for the service.
“If possible, it’s better for [customers] to call the restaurant and pick up the order,” he said.
Despite his frustrations with how officials have regulated restaurants during the pandemic, LeChasseur said he is grateful that his Burbank patrons have continued to buy food from his business during a pandemic that has tightened their wallets, too.
“I understand everybody is in the same boat,” he added. “Not everyone can afford to go out to dinner or order from restaurants, and I cannot blame them. But whatever you can order … once a week, it will help.”