L.A. dining scene braces for possible indoor masking return

As Los Angeles agonizes over being able to return to countywide indoor mask mandates, restaurateurs and bar owners are bracing for a new wave of backlash and enforcement difficulties – recalling to many difficulties in their industry throughout pandemic-driven pillars and rapidly evolving dietary regulations year 2020 and 2021.

But in an encouraging development, new figures are showing a slight decrease in new infections and hospital admissions. However, the catering industry is still on the rise.

If Los Angeles County remains at a “high” community level through Thursday, recording at least 10 weekly coronavirus positive hospitalizations for every 100,000 residents, countywide mask order will go into effect on Friday and require anyone over the age of 2 to wear a mask indoors in a range of settings: gyms, office spaces, shops, educational facilities, supermarkets and restaurants and bars among them .

Concerns go beyond whether the return of indoor masks will dampen sales, as some have seen a drop in the current COVID-19 wave driven by the Omicron sub-variable. BA.5 is highly infectious. For many, a return to masked duty could mean retaliation against angry and unruly customers, a problem exacerbated by the already boneless staff. .

Server Boris Macquin works at Figaro Bistrot.

Server Boris Macquin works at Figaro Bistrot on March 15, 2021.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Robert Fleming managed to avoid the first two years of the pandemic of pivoting and customer regulation, as the coronavirus and supply chain issues hampered the construction and opening of his Eagle Rock bar, Capri Club, launches in June. If the county reverts to indoor masking this week, it will mark the first time Fleming has been subject to masking regulations as a business owner.

“I was scared and nervous and there was a lot of anxiety behind it,” he said. “I actually dodged a bullet by not opening in a lot of this; I’m a bit lost, just because I have a lot of friends my age who have been through so much. “

If indoor masks are mandated again in LA County, his bar’s crew will comply and employees will wear masks, though they’re all wary of mask enforcement indoors. for customers. Logically, it presents a challenge in the 39-seat space: No table service; All orders are placed at the bar. Customers sitting at the bar will be allowed to remove their masks, but those ordering at the bar, in close proximity to the guests, will not.

Even if restaurant and bar owners are in the financial position to hire special staff to enforce national guidelines lack of labor – especially in the restaurant industry, rife with low-paying conditions and historically grueling work – makes hiring especially tight.

Capri Club’s staffing is slim as it is now, with two bartenders, one serving and one serving on the floor at any given time, usually taking orders for those in need. Customers stand two or three people deep around the bar. Last week, due to an employee’s COVID-19 exposure, Capri Club closed completely for one night due to a lack of staff.

It would be nearly impossible to hire more staff to do vaccinations and wear masks, says Fleming.

“The county doesn’t give us any resources other than what they list on their website and what they have available, smart documentation,” he said. “But for a restaurant owner who is understaffed – and every restaurateur I know in the county is understaffed – it is certainly a big ask given that we can only show it in the atmosphere. flimsy an excess body in it, or one more person to be strict. execute it. “

As an owner-operator, he feels constrained between options and fears how customers might react to strict enforcement.

“If I’m blunt, you know, that’s always going to be what keeps me up at night,” Fleming said, adding: “Damn if you do, damn if you don’t.”

LA County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer has stated that if the county goes back to wearing masks indoors, she hopes it will be brief. Above Thursday she noted that if county records show promise in slowing down, a mandate could be postponed.

Maria Salinas, president and chief executive officer of the Los Angeles Regional Chamber of Commerce, and Jessica Lall, president and chief executive officer of Central City Assn., recently reached out to Ferrer, writing that the mandate to wear a mask in-house “puts employees in the increasingly challenging position of performing a task many customers no longer want – or do not want – to comply with. “

A woman wearing a mask talking on the phone at a grocery store

Lien Ta, co-owner of All Day Baby in Silver Lake, orders by phone at the diner in November 2020.

(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Lien Ta, co-owner of Silver Lake’s All Day Baby and Koreatown’s Here’s Looking at You, is also concerned about customer reactions. “Politeness to people at the door” is “the opposite of hospitality,” Ta said, and she and her staff have had less polite interactions in the past when enforcing mask regulations.

“Business is really, really hard, and on top of that, if people yell at you, it just makes it harder for you,” she says.

Ta and her team have weathered the pandemic to run two very different restaurants. All Day Baby is more casual and allows sitting outdoors, while Here’s Looking at You is half the size and is indoor only; Operators believe that the return of masks in the home can have significantly different results in each type.

Her employees at both restaurants are able to use masks, although many employees have not stopped wearing masks indoors during service. She also notes that many customers have also voluntarily started wearing masks indoors during the most recent surge, although she knows that not all customers feel comfortable.

“It’s hard for people to keep a mask at the grocery store, let alone a restaurant where they say, ‘We’re going to take it off anyway.’ It is very difficult to manage that kind of stubborn behavior,” Ta said. “I didn’t really expect that, and to be honest, I didn’t have the energy.”

At All Day Baby, which offers patio seating, a higher customer base can lead to a greater amount of negative feedback, although the space may make up for it somewhat for al fresco dining. Here’s Looking at You doesn’t offer al fresco dining, although it did earlier during the pandemic, shifting its seating to an entirely outdoor sidewalk space. Currently, Ta said, she simply doesn’t have the resources to transform her restaurant again and she doesn’t have the staff to cook for other diners.

And she’s noticed a dwindling number of customers. Normally, the bar of Koreatown restaurant can accommodate about 30 diners walking by during an evening; Recently, only two people sat down.

A restaurant owner wearing a mask and gloves steps out of the restaurant's takeout window to wave to customers outside

All Day Baby’s Lien Ta greeted a customer in November 2020. “It’s very difficult to manage that kind of stubborn behavior,” Ta said of diners who refuse to wear masks.

(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

In contrast, at All Day Baby, the crowds slowed on weekdays; The more casual work in her two restaurants, she admits, would be easier to cut from a cautious customer’s plan or a pandemic precaution than Here’s Looking at You, which has a lot of special-occasion celebrations. than. She feels helpless in the face of walking away and canceling, but she says, what can she do?

Both businesses stock hand sanitizer for guests to use; While she doesn’t want to pay the cost of providing free disposable masks to guests beyond normal operating costs and current inflation trends, Ta has heard of other restaurant owners selling them to customers. diners come in without, and while that’s not ideal, she’s considering. options for both of her dining rooms – lest customers who arrive unprepared will be turned away at the door, making the business even more unprofitable.

“My staff are adults who work very, very hard, so we will all wear our masks,” Ta said. “It’s mostly just the public, and we really need them to come and dine. I do not know. It’s like we’re going back to 2020.”

“The reality is that people, regardless of vaccination status, will continue to congregate indoors.”

– Joel Dixon, of the restaurant group Rustic Canyon Family

The Rustic Canyon Family restaurant group operates eight restaurants, bars, and ice cream concepts in the LA area, including Birdie G’s, Rustic Canyon, Cassia, and Tallula’s, and has come this far. completely reconfigured some of its dining rooms to accommodate rapidly changing guidelines during the pandemic.

The hotel group’s president, Joel Dixon, said all of its businesses will comply with the in-house mask authorization return if it arrives soon, which they anticipate. But this time the mission feels different, he said, and contrary to Ferrer’s stance that returning to wearing masks indoors could help slow the rate of new positive cases, Dixon said he doesn’t believe it. will make a lot of difference.

“The reality is that people, regardless of immunization status, will continue to congregate indoors, gather in large groups, travel, etc.,” Dixon wrote in a statement. “Resuming mask missions will not ‘slow the spread’ at this time. The burden of restaurant staff with having to police the public with masks on duty causes unnecessary stress and anxiety, at a time when we are still facing staffing and cost shortages high labor.

“We encourage voluntary mask use to anyone who feels more comfortable wearing a mask. Setting up another mask mission will only result in reduced bookings and events, hurting an already fragile industry. “

The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health is expected to announce on Thursday whether indoor masking will resume or until then, Los Angeles restaurants and bars — and countless Other businesses that rely on in-house services and labor – will prepare for this task.

https://www.latimes.com/food/story/2022-07-25/covid-coronavirus-indoor-mask-mandates-restaurants-and-bars-prepare L.A. dining scene braces for possible indoor masking return

Russell Falcon

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