Cities across Orange County are allowing restaurants and some retail to extend outdoor dining options into parking lots and public spaces. 

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The plans vary by city, but all of them are set to allow businesses to expand outdoors to comply with social distancing restrictions that limit the number of people the restaurant can hold indoors.  

But before businesses look at their city programs, orders from the state and county have led to some confusion among business owners, according to Lucy Dunn, president of the Orange County Business Council.

Satisfying Several Requirements

Dunn listed the three primary requirements for reopening any business in Orange County. 

First, businesses have to look at the guidelines provided by the state for each industry and post a list of the requirements. 

Second, the state provided guidance for how to reopen dine-in restaurants last month, including conducting a risk assessment, training employees on how to lower the spread of the coronavirus and creating plans for sanitizing surface areas and physical distancing. The state also requires that businesses display that list prominently in the establishment.  

Finally, the county also requires that businesses must add a sign stating they’ve completed several other requirements, including a risk assessment plan and disinfecting programs in addition to the state’s guidelines. 

Dunn said the last requirement is where a lot of businesses are running into problems. 

“The county doesn’t have a form for the attestation,” Dunn said. “All these businesses are saying ‘does the county have a form, what does this look like?’ ” 

Another issue driving lots of questions is masks.

Over the last month, county health care agency officials and county supervisors have repeatedly clashed publicly over whether or not residents should be required to wear masks.

Dunn said the county’s disagreements over mask orders and other social distancing restrictions have led to confusion among Orange County merchants as they try to reopen stores for the first time in months. 

“Most businesses don’t know that you need to comply with these three things. Part of the problem is that at the county there’s not a unified voice,” Dunn said. “There’s really no countywide way to disseminate this information in one fell swoop.”

County spokesperson Molly Nicholson said that while it has been challenging to get information out to businesses, the best place for them to look is on the OC Health info pages. 

“The protocols they have to meet are all on the OC Health website.” Nicholson said. “We’ve used organizations such as the business council to help us out to get information to consumers. It has been challenging. We’re trying our best to insure they know where to go.” 

In an effort to counteract mixed messaging, the Orange County Business Council and the OC HealthCare Agency started a series of online seminars for businesses interested in reopening, with the next one set for today

After restaurants have made their way through the county and state guidelines, they also have to review if there are any exceptions or changes imposed by the city in which they operate.

Cities Make Moves

Irvine was one of the first cities to implement a reopening plan at its May 12 City Council meeting, where city staff mapped out allowing retail and restaurants to reopen with the use of a city special event permit. 

“The intent would be to allow restaurants and retail to expand their capacity while maintaining social distancing,” said Pete Carmichael, director of community services. “It allows a streamlined process for the review to ensure that plans are safe, but also to provide an expedited process so that these can get up and running quickly.” 

According to Irvine spokeswoman Melissa Haley, the city has already approved four restaurants to open under the new program, and the city is encouraging more to apply. 

Last week, Newport Beach also adopted a similar emergency ordinance to allow not only businesses but religious institutions to extend into public spaces with temporary use permits. The ordinance is intended to allow merchants to accommodate state physical distancing requirements to reopen while maintaining current occupancy numbers.  

At a City Council meeting earlier this week, Huntington Beach presented its plan to allow retail and restaurants the chance to move outdoors as well, converting public spaces, including parking lots, into seating areas that could be used for multiple restaurants and retail opportunities. 

Questions still remain about what the plans could cost the city, but it provided a clear route to reopening similar to plans implemented by Irvine and Newport, allowing businesses to submit a permit application to temporarily use public spaces. 

Laguna Niguel also passed a plan two weeks ago that would allow restaurants to reopen, but unlike the plans from other cities, it was specifically tailored to restaurants and not to retail as a whole. 

“I’m glad to see we’re thinking outside the box a little bit on how we can help them,” said Laguna Niguel Councilwoman Elaine Gennawey at the May 19 meeting. “Those restaurants are feeding families.” 

In Anaheim and Santa Ana, city managers issued orders last Thursday to allow restaurants and other retail to expand into public space. Anaheim’s plan required permits, while Santa Ana’s said merchants could expand as long as they followed city guidelines. 

Costa Mesa voted unanimously on Tuesday to adopt an emergency ordinance that would allow restaurants and religious institutions to also extend their services into public spaces at a city council meeting.

“Many of our restaurants in town are small inside and so this will allow them to go out onto the patio area or a common area, the sidewalk, the parking lot, and we’ve made it very efficient for them to do so in some cases as a matter of right, if it is in their own property,” said Costa Mesa Mayor Katrina Foley in an interview with the Voice of OC.

But even with cities expanding opportunities for retail and restaurants, Dunn with Orange County Business Council said the real issue won’t revolve around policy. 

“The confusing part is giving confidence to the public when 63% of us are still not leaving our houses,” she said. 

“We want to make our businesses as safe as possible,” Dunn said, “so customers and employees can feel it’s a safe place to visit.”

Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at or on Twitter @NBiesiada.  

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

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