Uncertainty Continues for OC Restaurants and Bars Reckoning with Coronavirus

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

A table set up outside a restaurant for dine-in customers in south Orange County on June 30, 2020.

The night before Orange County officials closed down bars and Gov. Gavin Newsom again shuttered restaurants’ indoor dining operations, The Saloon owner Michael Byrne walked through his Laguna Beach pub’s doors, looked at his bartenders, and made the decision to close as Coronavirus cases spiked ahead of the July 4th weekend.

About a week before, Byrne closed his other establishment, Roux — a restaurant just a short drive further south down Pacific Coast Highway — after a line cook there contracted Coronavirus. The restaurant had been offering dine-in services at half-capacity.

“It’s times like these where you think the restaurant business doesn’t make for a great career choice,” he said over the phone Wednesday morning. “Plexiglass — that would’ve been a good business decision right now, don’t you think?”

Byrne is one of many merchants who have suffered from a lack of sit-down dining business during the more restrictive months of the pandemic, and whose businesses had to shutter again amid Coronavirus outbreaks and case spikes, just weeks after being authorized under public health guidelines to reopen while statewide cases had appeared to stabilize. Now, facing sales dips just as county restaurants were opening back up, they’re being forced to reckon with the pandemic’s resurgence. 

Empty barstools at Hennessey’s Tavern in Laguna Beach.

Byrne said his standard line is about keeping his staff healthy. “It would break my heart to have somebody get seriously sick in our restaurant all because we just needed to make a couple of hours.”

Despite decking out The Saloon’s bar counter with a tall plexiglass shield, among other safety precautions, Byrne said he made the decision to close the establishment after hearing from staff who themselves had families and noted real concern about the rising virus cases.

“Laguna closed the beaches for the Fourth of July weekend; common sense said bars would probably be next, for good reason,” Byrne said. “What is the value of me making a couple hundred bucks over the next two days when I’m gonna be closed anyway, and the other side of the equation is risking the life of people I really love for two days?”

In other parts of the county, there’s anxiety among restaurant workers about the prospect of going back to work in areas of high concentrations of people — let alone dine-in settings — while the virus is still out there.

Alisha Anticouni, a server and bartender at Trader Sam’s Enchanted Tiki Bar at the Disneyland Hotel, is worried about the prospect the hotel and Disneyland parks in Anaheim would reopen in the near future.

“I don’t think people realize how much cross-contamination could happen without proper hand washing when you’re touching plates, menus, a pen,” she said.

Initially, Disney planned to reopen the parks and hotels over the course of July, though a spokesperson said the company has since placed those efforts on hold.

However, the Downtown Disney district, including its restaurants, is set to reopen July 9 with outdoor patio seating, which is still permitted under Newsom’s new restrictions.

The Disney spokesperson added the company has a set of planned safety measures and guidelines in place, such as temperature checks for guests and staff prior to entering the parks and Downtown Disney district, reduced capacity at the parks, changes to accommodate physical distancing, and requiring everyone to wear face coverings.

As long as the hotels remain closed, Anticouni doesn’t have to go back to work.

“I will go back to work if I have to, for my kids, but my priority is making sure safety is number one, because I have people in my house who have asthma and if something happens to them it could potentially be bad,” she said over the phone from her home, as her 6-year-old and 4-year-old children ran around in the background. “We’re either gonna hurt our people or hurt the economy … At this point we just need to figure out how we can do everything safely, and we need to figure out how to get people to respect that.” 

Anticouni called it a “lose-lose” situation, where keeping restaurants open would risk the safety and health of employees while closing them would affect employees’ work hours. 

On Wednesday, watching new cases spike, Clayton Chau, the acting public health officer and OC Health Care Agency director, ordered all Orange County bars closed by Friday, ahead of the July 4th weekend — just weeks after bars were allowed to operate since June 12 under the second phase of state-authorized business reopening guidelines.

Later in the day, Newsom issued a state order limiting dine-in services at restaurants to outdoor and patio only.

A few hours before the order was issued, OC Restaurant Association President Pam Waitt in a Wednesday phone interview predicted it would come by the end of the day.

“I hate the term ‘new normal,’ but I do really feel that takeout is here to stay,” Waitt said.

Coming up, she added, are planned restaurant promotion programs that the association hasn’t used in a decade, since the fallout from the Great Recession.

“Just anything we can do to help these restaurants; this is unprecedented,” Waitt said.

While his restaurant only offered take-out services, Byrne said Roux made 30% in sales of what the restaurant normally made pre-coronavirus, when the eatery was also offering indoor dine-in services.

Meanwhile, the county Health Care Agency throughout the month has repeatedly told Voice of OC it doesn’t have a list of restaurants that officials are keeping tabs on, as rumors of outbreaks at county eateries had abounded on social media throughout June since being authorized to reopen for indoor dine-in services.

“If there are any cases associated with a facility, we will always assure that any close contacts who work there are excluded from work for two weeks,” Dr. Matthew Zahn, medical director for the agency’s Communicable Disease Control Division, said in a June 17 written response to questions. 

He added: “If there is a cluster of cases, depending on the number of cases and the size of the facility, we may either mandate that all staff be tested and/or a facility close for a period of time until it is clearly safe to reopen.”

And while some restaurants like Hennessey’s in Laguna Beach closed their doors throughout June for a few days while explicitly acknowledging a COVID-19 case in their establishment, other businesses on social media like Red O in Newport Beach have announced closures for “deep-cleaning” without saying whether or not one of their staffers contracted the virus.

Byrne, meanwhile, announced in a Laguna Beach Nextdoor post the presence of COVID-19 at Roux when he shuttered the restaurant.

“You’re better off saying ‘we had a guy who had COVID-19 and we’re addressing it,’” he said over the phone. “If people find out on their own – which, in a town like Laguna, they’re gonna find out – then there’s that stigma of ‘you weren’t honest with me.’”

He said the restaurant’s Nextdoor post “was us getting out in front of a difficult situation.” 

Yet he was humbled by the responses. 

“There wasn’t one negative comment – and that’s Nextdoor,” he remarked. “People want to be told the truth rather than be told nothing.” 

Looking ahead, Lucy Dunn, chief executive officer of the Orange County Business Council, said restaurants’ best bet will be expanding outdoors for patio seating.

“Frankly, the restaurants already doing so have a bit of a competitive advantage right now,” she said, adding that people likely will feel safer eating on a patio as epidemiologists have pointed out the virus doesn’t spread as easily outdoors.

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Customers dine outdoors in south Orange County on June 30, 2020.

Cities like Huntington Beach, Newport Beach, Anaheim and Santa Ana in May passed ordinances and measures allowing for restaurants to expand outdoors and in public spaces.

“Kudos to those cities,” Dunn said. “We know being outdoors is being safer than indoors – I think the biggest things are really being creative, not only to protect your own workers in your restaurants, but guests. So expanding dining to the outdoors really is a good option.”

Under Newsom’s new order, restaurants that still want to offer dine-in services, for now, no longer have a choice.

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC staff writer and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.