Manhattan Beach closes outdoor dining as COVID-19 cases surge
by Mark McDermott
The City of Manhattan Beach on Sunday closed the outdoor dining decks it had taken over from restaurants in early December as a way to help the struggling local dining industry evade Los Angeles County health order restrictions and attract some semblance of business.
The closure was announced late Saturday night after the city experienced 47 COVID-19 cases in the previous 48 hours, its highest two day total since the pandemic arrived. Those new cases brought the total to 821 on January 2, a near doubling of cases since November 1.
In a statement announcing the outdoor seating closure, the City referenced both the spike in cases and concerns over the presence of a new, potentially more contagious variant of novel coronavirus that LA County health officials have identified.
“We must continue to respond to the ever-changing dynamics of this pandemic,” said Mayor Suzanne Hadley in the statement. “We are asking residents to stay home if possible, and mainly go out for work and essentials, or to exercise outdoors. This recent spike in the virus is significant, despite the good news last month of our Manhattan Beach firefighters receiving some of the first COVID-19 vaccinations. Although public seating areas will be closed temporarily, please continue supporting our local businesses that offer pick-up, curbside, take-out, and delivery services.”
The decision to close public seating was made by the Council’s COVID-19 Long Term Business Solutions ad hoc subcommittee, which was formed last summer in order to find ways to help local businesses survive the pandemic. Councilpersons Steve Napolitano and Richard Montgomery represent the council on the subcommittee, which meets regularly with Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Business Association representatives. It was also the subcommittee’s decision, on December 2, to declare the outdoor dining areas of local restaurants public seating, essentially “parkettes,” for which the city would maintain responsibility. That decision came days after the LA County Department of Public Health issued new restrictions, including the cessation of outdoor dining, due to a post-Thanksgiving countywide surge in COVID-19 cases.
The city’s action to take over the seating allowed outdoor dining to continue, albeit without service, by making it possible for diners to order takeout and dine on the decks. The city essentially provided a shield for the restaurants, who if they’d maintained their own outdoor dining could have been shut down and fined by Department of Public Health inspectors. The decision drew fire from LA County Public Health Officer Muntu Davis, who in a letter to the City of Manhattan Beach described that maneuver as a “workaround” that was “both violating and defeating the purpose of the County’s Order and decidedly not safeguarding public health.”
At Tuesday night’s meeting, Napolitano defended both the decision to declare the dining decks public seating and the decision to close down that public seating. He argued that outdoor dining itself was safe but that the city’s action, and the attention it received, created a potentially unsafe situation.
“We’re a bit of a victim of our own success because everyone, knowing that we had this outside seating, people were coming not just from Manhattan Beach from outside Manhattan Beach,” Napolitano said. “Good weather helped that, we understand….Let’s be honest, a lot of people were sitting at the public seating, the outdoor dining, without masks. They were partying, no social distance drinking was going on.”
Napolitano said that if restaurants were allowed to continue outdoor dining, with COVID-19 safety precautions in place as they had been previously, he believed it could be done safely. But the unsupervised public dining, he said, was not safe.
“In this case, we decided to use the common sense precaution that reducing maskless gatherings will reduce risk, which is what most of our rules are based on. As you said in your approved press release on the closure public seating, your Honor,” he said, referencing Hadley’s statement, “we must continue to respond to the ever changing dynamics of this pandemic, asking residents to stay home as much as possible, and really go out for work and essentials, or to exercise outdoors. The recent spike is significant. This is about reducing risk to the extent possible, reducing gatherings to reduce risk….There are no good answers here.”
Hadley said she issued her statement because it was her duty as mayor, but that she was surprised by the subcommittee’s decision and disagreed with it.
“Was I shocked? Yes, like my jaw hit the floor,” Hadley said, noting that she’d signed off on the press release statement not because she felt it was the correct action but because she’d vowed in becoming mayor in December to speak on behalf of the entire council. “And that was a tough one for me as mayor. I’m not trying to be defensive here, but I kind of feel like I can’t win either way I go. But as mayor I do represent everybody. I made that pledge at the transition, the mayoral transition, and I said I’m the mayor for everybody. And I’m the mayor for all decisions, even decisions I don’t agree with.”
Hadley disclosed that her husband, David Hadley, had a bout with COVID-19 and she suspects she herself had the virus. Her mother in Wisconsin, she said, is currently hospitalized with COVID-19 symptoms and “not doing well.” But she maintained that closing outdoor dining wasn’t the answer.
“I would not have voted to do this,” Hadley said. “I just feel for you, because I know….this is what I tell residents, I said I feel the need for you two to do something. And I get that. And that’s a really human, really wonderful quality about you, and I admire you for that. And I’ve told residents, in a few emails, that when I’m mad at my husband, I try not to kick the dog. Because the dog doesn’t have anything to do with my husband. And I know you’re not trying to kick the restaurants. But I think you’re mad at COVID. And you’re spooked by COVID. We are all spooked by COVID.”
Three local restaurateurs spoke during public comment. David Slay, owner of the downtown restaurant Slay, said he’d been forced to close his restaurant for now without outdoor dining and implored the council to resume public seating as soon as possible. Peter Kim, owner of Sloopy’s in North Manhattan, said his business was down at least 60 percent since outdoor dining closed and likewise asked that outdoor dining resume as soon as was feasible. And Mike Zislis, owner of several downtown restaurants, said his business was down 75 percent and he’d been forced to lay off more employees.
Zislis argued that closure made little sense, citing a study from New York that showed though contact tracing that only 1.4 percent of COVID-19 cases had come from restaurants and bars.
“I just want to say, follow the data,” Zislis said. “I know that in LA County, the numbers have risen very exponentially even though they outlawed outdoor dining,” Zislis said. “In Manhattan Beach, we had those parklettes and our rates didn’t climb nearly as fast as the rest of LA County. So there’s something good about being outside is what I say.”
Councilperson Hildy Stern urged that the council project a positive message.
“This conversation shouldn’t be about what we can do to circumvent the county,” Stern said. “This conversation should be about what we can do to support our restaurants…We know what it takes to support our restaurants. Economically, it takes being a customer. They need us to spend money in their restaurants.”
“We are not in a place where we can start making our own health decisions,” Stern said. “We’re in a place where we really need to start being serious. And look at that number — zero percent ICU capacity at our hospitals is a frightening number. That’s not sustainable.”
Montgomery vehemently defended the decision to close outdoor dining.
“Here’s two numbers, 421, the number of cases we had in our city a month ago; and today’s number, 835. Eight three five.That’s not a mistake. That’s not a typo. That’s our city. That’s our residents. That’s not LA County. That’s not LA City. That’s Manhattan Beach. Those of you who say follow science, those are two numbers you can’t forget. We are lucky to have only four [COVID-19] deaths. Our job as councilmembers is first and foremost public safety. You all swore that oath. This is a public safety issue, number one.”
“This is absolutely the right thing to do and I have no regrets about that whatsoever,” Montgomery said. “Our common enemy is Covid, not ourselves.” ER
by Jen Ezpeleta