LOS ANGELES — When California Gov. Gavin Newsom tweeted Sunday that Los Angeles County bars would have to close, it was just another inconvenience on a growing list of now-forbidden activities for most Angelenos. But for Ryan Ballinger, who owns the York gastropub in Highland Park, it was another confusing hurdle to stay afloat in a COVID economy.
“This new order is hard to interpret because if you’re a bar, you’re a bar. You’re closed,” Ballinger said. “But if you’re a restaurant, are they dialing back dine-in service?”
Being a restaurant as well as a bar, the York had been open for takeout only after the city issued its stay-at-home order in March. Even so, business was down 95 percent until last Thursday when it resumed dine-in service on a reduced, Thursday-through-Sunday schedule.
At least it did until Sunday when Newsom tweeted that restaurants in L.A. and six other counties had to close because “#COVID19 is still circulating and that’s why it is critical to take this step to limit the spread in counties seeing the biggest increases."
More than 1,700 people are currently hospitalized with COVID-19 in L.A. County, higher than the 1,350 to 1,450 daily hospitalizations seen in recent weeks, according to the L.A. County Public Health Department; the rate of people testing positive has also increased from 8 to 9 percent. At least 40 percent of COVID infections are now among people 18 to 40 years old.
"Bars have become dangerous with many people not abiding by 50 percent capacity," L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti said Monday evening, adding that he supported Gov. Newsom's bar closure decision "100 percent." In L.A., gatherings of people who do not live in the same household are prohibited.
Like a lot of L.A.’s restaurants and bars, Ballinger heard the bar closure news through, well, the news. Newsom tweeted at 1:18 p.m., but Ballinger didn’t hear anything directly from the agency that issued his permit to operate – the L.A. County Department of Public Health – until 4 p.m., when his restaurant was already open for the day. Nor did he hear anything from the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, which oversees licensing and regulation for bar and restaurant alcohol consumption in the state – or the city.
“When orders come in on a Sunday, what does that mean? If I was supposed to open today, would I open or not open?” said Ballinger, who decided to keep his restaurant with the COVID protocols he’d put into place through the end of Sunday’s shift in the hopes that a more clear directive would come through.
“You’re left piecing things together from what you hear from Sacramento and the news, what the Department of Public Health tells you, what the city of L.A. might have that’s different from county rules, and then talking to other operators to figure out what we’re supposed to do," he said.
So far, the only direct guidance he’s received from any government agency is an email from the L.A. County Department of Public Health, saying that the County Health Officer Order will be amended “to require that all bars, breweries, brew pubs, pubs, wineries, and tasting rooms in L.A. County close unless they are offering sit-down dine-in meals. This includes closing bar areas in restaurants.”
It can be difficult to navigate the layers of bureacracy within state, county, and local governments and the interplay that now exists between the different agencies regulating public health and restaurant businesses. For the L.A. County bar closure, the California Department of Alcohol Beverage Control defers to the state's Public Health Department, which, in a statement released Sunday, said bars should close unless they offer sit-down, dine-in meals, and that "alcohol can only be sold in the same transaction as a meal."
Like Ballinger, Dimitri Komarov also heard about the bar shutdown through the news Sunday. The co-owner of the 1933 Group, which owns 10 bars and restaurants throughout the city, including the Formosa Cafe, had just reopened four of its bars last Thursday.
“We had to close immediately yesterday and essentially lay people off again,” said Komarov, who closed the La Cuevita, Bigfoot Lodge, Bigfoot Lodge West, and Thirsty Crow bars on Sunday, just four days after they reopened. He’s spending Monday “doing damage control,” he said.
“It took us a lot to get these places reopened after sitting for three months. It took a lot of time and prep and cleaning and bringing in produce, and all of the sudden we’re told we have to shut down.”
These are tough days for L.A. restaurant and bar owners, many of whom have seen their businesses plummet to a tiny fraction of what they were before COVID came to town. Since March, they have been navigating rules about takeout, dine-in, alcohol availability, social distancing, and other safety protocols that can change on a dime depending on how the pandemic is evolving.
“It would be ideal if there was a hotline to ask questions,” Komarov said.
Thom Sigsby, who co-owns the Fable bar in Eagle Rock with his wife Monica Katzenell, is “still sitting on cases of Jameson’s and Guinness” he had ordered for a large St. Patrick’s Day crowd that never materialized because of the stay-at-home order in March. The cozy bar on Colorado Blvd. has been closed since March 15.
Sigsby had planned to reopen this August but is now “taking a wait-and-see approach because we don’t have that extra money to change our place into a beer bottle shop, to have fridges to make purchases to go. We don’t have the infrastructure, and we don’t want to spend the money on that if it changes.”
Sigsby is rapidly depleting his business accounts, paying rent and utilities for a business that isn’t making any money because it’s closed. To help see him through, he’d like to see more direct payment relief for his utilities, and also for insurance carriers to pay out on businesses interruption claims that have so far been denied.
“Bars and restaurants need to get propped up, or it’s all going to be just chain restaurants,” said Sigsby, who is hopeful for the day the Fable can throw open its doors, whenever that will be.
“The truth of it is, when we’re open, we get to make drinks for people and have karaoke parties and dance parties,” he said. “When we are open, it’s a great business, so that’s why we are OK suffering through this.”