After nearly three months of either being closed or making ends meet with take out and delivery service as part of the battle against COVID-19, Pasadena restaurant owners have joined their colleagues in Los Angeles and other neighboring cities in reopening their dine-in services on a modified basis.
Much as the notice to close local dine-in restaurant operations on March 16 was given without any warning, longtime Pasadena restaurateur Jack Huang said permission by the city to reopen also came unexpectedly, only this time it was a welcome surprise.
“We were basically told overnight to close… and at that time it was for only two weeks,” Huang said. “We were kind of waiting for phase 1 at 25 percent (capacity), and then phase 2 at 50 percent, but that never happened, and then they said you can open at 60 percent. I always wondered who does the calculation for 25, then 50 then 60 percent.”
During a meeting with City Manager Steve Mermell in mid-March, “One lady said, ‘Really, two weeks?’ And Steve said, to be honest, I’m looking at the end of April, then the end of May. Even back in late May they were saying maybe the Fourth of July,” Huang recalled. “But all the numbers have dropped, the hospital, the death rate. Then (it was reported) that the death rate may be inflated.
“You want us to believe in science and data. The data doesn’t support this kind of a shutdown,” … said Huang, owner of the restaurants Sorriso and Barcelona, located on the south side of Colorado Boulevard between Fair Oaks and Raymond Avenues, and Ix Tapa, at the northwest corner of Arroyo Parkway and Colorado, all in trendy Old Pasadena.
‘A FINE LINE’
On May 29, the LA County Department of Public Health gave the OK to area restaurants to open at 60 percent capacity and established a strict set of protocols aimed at maximizing cleanliness and limiting the spread of the novel coronavirus. That day, officials in Pasadena, which like Long Beach, Vernon and Berkeley has its own health department, gave local restaurants, as well as hairstylists, the go ahead to also reopen.
As this was happening, people around the county were demonstrating in the streets over the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis. Floyd’s killing sparked outrage in cities and communities around the country, including Pasadena and Altadena, where residents had taken to the streets in mostly peaceful protests against this latest racial injustice. One such march in Floyd’s honor was in Old Pasadena just two days after restaurants were given permission to reopen, beginning a week of similar protests in the city, Altadena, and even Glendale on Sunday afternoon. There, thousands of people marched with signs along Wilson Avenue — through that city’s own dining and entertainment district — and stopped traffic along the way, all under the watchful eyes of pairs of Glendale police motorcycle officers guiding the march along the way.
Throughout last week, Old Pasadena looked as though it had just been hit by an earthquake, with well over a dozen businesses in Old Pas, the mid-city district and the Playhouse District boarding up their doors and windows. In Old Pasadena alone those businesses included the Rusnak luxury auto dealership, Ralph’s market, Crate & Barrel, Nike, Vince, the Sunglasses Hut, across the street Kabuki, Tiffany’s, Apple and other businesses further east, including shops in The Exchange, Romantix, Pottery Barn, and across the street from there the 35er bar and other small shops with large front windows.
A drive along Brand Boulevard in Glendale after Sunday’s march showed merchants in that city also boarded up windows and glass doors last week, either for protection or simply because they were closed due to coronavirus.
Among the Pasadena restaurants champing at the bit to get back to business is Alexander’s Steakhouse, at the corner of Marengo Avenue and Colorado Boulevard, which reopened June 5.
“We have taken every measure to amplify our longstanding health and safety measures in accordance with the county, state, OSHA and CDC safety mandates,” wrote Alexander’s spokeswoman Marilyn Skinner. “We will continue to offer takeout, delivery and our online butcher shop. We are excited to greet long-standing and new guests through (mask hidden) smiles.”
When the reopening announcement was made, the county issued protocols to guide restaurants and diners in adjusting to this latest development.
These protocols include measures such as prioritizing outdoor seating and curbside pickup, maintaining physical distancing within establishments, screening employees and customers for COVID-19 symptoms, the continued closure of bar areas, mandatory face coverings for customers who are not eating, and a limited dine-in capacity — no more than 60 percent for the next three weeks.
Requirements for compliance are much the same in Pasadena. They are:
• Employees and customers will be screened for symptoms, including cough and fever. Patrons feeling unwell should not eat at a restaurant.
• Outdoor seating and curbside pickup are prioritized.
• Reservations are encouraged.
• Customers will be asked to wait for their table in their cars or outside the restaurant to prevent crowds from gathering.
• Diners must wear cloth face coverings when not eating.
• Diners can be seated at the bar if modifications are made, such as Plexiglass or other physical barriers.
Pasadena has also reopened hair salons, the city’s dog park and the extremely popular disc golf course in Oak Grove Park in Northwest Pasadena.
The rules for hair salons and barbers are:
• Physical distancing measures will be in place.
• Employees and customers will be screened for symptoms, including cough and fever. Clients feeling unwell should reschedule their appointment.
• Everyone, including clients, must wear cloth face coverings while in the salon or barbershop, and clients are encouraged to wear face coverings with earloops to ensure the face covering does not interfere with hair service.
• Magazines, coffee and other amenities will not be available.
• Clients are encouraged to use credit cards and contactless payment systems. If electronic or card payment is not possible, customers should come with exact cash payment or check, if available.
• Stylists may only serve one client at a time.
Personal grooming services that are still prohibited are:
• Nail salons
• Spa services, including massage, facials and waxing
• Body art facilities
Los Angeles County remains the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic in California, with hundreds of new cases still being reported daily. As of Monday, June 8, the total number of cases in the county was 63,844, with 2,645 deaths.
According to its online COVID-19 dashboard, the city of Pasadena reported 996 cases with 84 deaths.
LA County Supervisor Janice Hahn said the county is walking “a fine line” in allowing restaurants to open for dine-in service.
“We are threading the needle between keeping the public safe and allowing our economy to reopen,” Hahn said.
ON THE BORDERS
Monique King and her husband Paul Rosenbluh, owners of Fox’s Restaurant in Altadena and Cindy’s Diner in Eagle Rock, are doing what they must to make their restaurants safe.
“At Fox’s we have a larger space with two dining rooms [and more flexibility]. At Cindy’s we have booths and we have a counter… I researched what we could do with fixed tables. We installed Plexiglass in between each of the booths,” said King.
“We’re doing what we need to do to provide a safe environment for our employees and our guests in this new reality,” King said. “Paul and I are lifers. Thirty years each of commitment and passion. We are in it for the long haul. Fox’s and Cindy’s will prevail.”
Andrew Binder, a fourth-generation owner and managing partner at Philippe’s, downtown LA’s legendary French dip spot, recalls an experience much like Huang’s.
“We reacted in a better fashion than when the initial ordinance to stop dine-in happened,” he said. “We had a six-hour notice.”
Binder has prepared Philippe’s for reopening by reconfiguring the dining area, adding wooden stations to create separation between customers, and spacing out the dining room by using smaller tables.
“Because we do have such a large restaurant, we’re expecting to be able to work at the restricted capacity,” he said. “If that doesn’t work, we’re looking at maybe utilizing our parking lot.”
Despite the ability to immediately restart dine-in service, Binder said Philippe’s was planning to wait until Monday, June 8, to see how other restaurants treat this new development.
“We want to see how the trend goes,” Binder told the Downtown News, a sister publication of the Pasadena Weekly. “We didn’t want to rush and wanted to be 100 percent certain in our roll-out of this.”
In other cities, proprietors seem a little more enthused. In Arcadia, for instance, the webmaster at Matt Denny’s Ale House, a popular restaurant and nightclub with live entertainment, has been working overtime in providing updates and progress reports on the politics involved with reopening.
They opened June 4, and “We are busy cleaning, stocking the kitchen and creating a great and fresh tap list to get ready for you,” the site states, pleading with customers for patience in explaining how seating will be limited to maintain social distances, that masks will be worn and extreme sanitation will be top priority — all while the patio is under construction.
L.A. AL FRESCO
Sonoratown, the lauded downtown LA taquería, responded to the announcement with an Instagram post saying it “will not be reopening the dining room at this time,” and will continue offering take-out.
Victor Delgado, who founded the Tijuana-style taqueria, Tacos 1986, called the restrictions “limiting.”
“I felt there were still guidelines that needed to be shared with us, because you’ve seen some restaurants not even going to dine-in because the restrictions are so limiting,” Delgado said.
“Opening a dining room for 30 people instead of 60 people who you can seat, sometimes it just doesn’t make any sense. Every time someone dines, they want you to clean, disinfect and leave it untouched for like 10 minutes, then someone can sit down. For us, we’re going to wait and see if there’s any more clarification on the guidelines we need to follow. For now, we’re going to hold out and wait.”
There are several risks that go along with opening the restaurant as well, he said.
“I think the risk is that you don’t want the city to come in and fine you, or close you down for not following the health department rules,” Delgado said. “So, until it’s very clear about how it’s going to be done, I don’t want to risk that. I don’t want anyone to come in and fine us, so I would rather wait till we have that so we can train staff accordingly to follow those rules and regulations. If there’s more specific guidelines on standing-room restaurants and patios, then I’ll reconsider it.”
Other Los Angeles restaurateurs have pointed to the health and financial risks involved with reopening — an expensive process that, if a second wave of the novel coronavirus should hit, would compound the financial losses they have already endured.
Some restaurants may wish to proceed with reopening but lack the space to accommodate physical distancing requirements. In response, Councilman Mike Bonin of the 11th District advanced a proposal called “L.A. Al Fresco” — a phrase that refers to dining outside in the open air — that Mayor Eric Garcetti has supported and launched.
L.A. Al Fresco allows restaurants to apply for a permit that allows them to serve dine-in customers outdoors, on sidewalks and in parking lots. Soon, L.A. Al Fresco may be expanded to include partial or fully closed streets.
“We are cutting red tape and making it easier for restaurants to use and share outside spaces,” Bonin said. “This will protect the health and safety of restaurant employees and customers by making it easier to accommodate physical distancing.”
The temporary Al Fresco permits will be valid for 90 days, after which restaurants can reapply, reported The Argonaut, another sister publication of PW.
THINK ON YOUR FEET
The whirlwind over the past few months have been challenging for many business sectors, but there’s no question that restaurants have taken a particularly hard thumping.
When asked how he plans to manage this new challenge of reopening, Binder had this to say: “It’s the same as these last months. Just roll with the punches and think on your feet.”
“We’re back in business but our hands are tied behind us. I’m still behind three months rent. Who’s going to pick that up?” asked Huang of Pasadena.
Still, in spite of the hardships, Huang has managed to keep his sense of humor.
“I tell people we are only at 50 percent capacity so you have to spend twice as much to make it up,” he said with a laugh.