Return of outdoor dining in LA County brings both joy and apprehension


Chris Torres

Alora Machado, bartender and server at The Copper Mine, prepares an Old Fashioned for a customer while wearing a mask on Jan. 31, 2021. Employees are required to wear masks for the duration of their shift.

Emily Holshouser, Assistant News Editor

On Jan. 28, the Los Angeles County Public Health Department announced that outdoor dining could reopen for restaurants and some bars. Angelenos have not been able to dine in person at restaurants since Dec. 3, when Gov. Newsom implemented a statewide stay-at-home order to combat overwhelmed intensive care units and an enormous surge in COVID-19 cases.

The closing of restaurants created friction between owners and local government as many debated the link between outdoor dining and COVID-19 cases and managers made laborious adjustments to reopen safely.

“I’m very glad that outdoor dining has reopened. Many of our local restaurants made significant investments in their outdoor dining setups for the safety and protection of both diners and employees,” said John Lee, the city councilmember who represents Northridge and the surrounding area, in a statement. “The outdoor dining ban was a major setback to an industry that had already been dealt a crushing blow.”

At The Copper Mine in Woodland Hills, a popular neighborhood bar, managers were elated to open their doors again.

Julie Wilson, a bar manager at The Copper Mine, leaned against the bar as she spoke through a bedazzled face mask about reopening.

“We have a lot of local regulars that come here,” Wilson said. “This is like our family. It’s like ‘Cheers’ here. It’s been hard on people, not having that family.”

The reopening came with several caveats. According to the L.A. County Public Health Department, televisions were banned in the restaurants to prevent crowds from gathering for the Super Bowl and other sports events. Parties are limited to six people and must be part of the same household. Additionally, tables must be eight feet apart.

Shortly before restaurants reopened, the state of California restructured vaccine distribution. Food service workers, previously near the front of the line, were largely unable to get vaccinated when restaurants opened their patios.

The L.A. County Department of Public Health announced on Wednesday that food service workers will be able to get vaccinated in the coming weeks, but the county is struggling to move beyond second doses for even the most vulnerable Angeleons.

“We haven’t had any issues with any of our employees even getting [COVID-19] yet, knock on wood,” Wilson said of her staff at Copper Mine. “We’ve just been super careful about it. I can’t speak on behalf of anybody else, but I’m not one to run and get a vaccine anyway. I’ve never had a flu shot.”

The outdoor dining patio at The Copper Mine Sports & Whiskey Bar in Woodland Hills, Calif., on Jan. 31, 2021. Tables are separated by fiber glass dividers and customers can only take their mask off when they are eating or drinking. (Chris Torres)

The relaxation in guidelines was a lifeline for many restaurants struggling to stay afloat. The National Restaurant Association reported that 8 million restaurant employees have been unemployed or furloughed since the pandemic began.

“To me, the devastation of us being shut down was a lot harder on a lot of us, than even thinking about contracting the virus,” Wilson said.

Although many restaurant managers, like Wilson, are glad to open their doors again, other food service employees are unsure. Low-wage food service workers have now become primary enforcers of COVID-19 safety protocols for their customers, who don’t always comply.

“They say, ‘Oh, you’re the mask police here,’ I say no, I’m trying to be safe,” said Elvia Martinez, an employee at a Panda Express at the Los Angeles International Airport. “Some people do say ‘I’m sorry,’ but there’s a lot of people who get really angry.”

Martinez said that some of her co-workers have been reluctant to enforce COVID-19 safety guidelines. Among them, Martinez became the first line of defense when angry customers refused to mask up.

“People are scared, some of them are always very grateful, they say ‘Thank you Elvia, for taking care of us,’ I tell them I’m taking care of myself too,” Martinez said. “Somebody has to tell these people something, because they don’t listen.”

Martinez’s family begged her not to work, but she kept going, determined to keep a roof over their heads.

“My mom says ‘Don’t work Elvia,’ but I don’t have a choice. I need to pay my bills, I need to pay for food, I need to be able to support them.”

A sign posted on the front door of the Copper Mine Sports & Whiskey Bar in Woodland Hills, Calif., showing the safety measures customers need to comply with if they wish to participate in outdoor dining. (Chris Torres)