Second wave of virus shutdowns hits California restaurants

LOS ANGELES (AP) – Homayoun Dariyani was training servers and cooks for his gourmet burger grill that will soon open in March, when California abruptly closed restaurants to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

After a three-month delay, Dariyani celebrated the grand opening of Slater’s 50/50 on June 18 after the state allowed restaurants to operate with limited capacity. It would be a brief respite.

Governor Gavin Newsom on Wednesday closed meals in the interior for at least three weeks in much of the nation’s most populous state, warning that infections were increasing rapidly.

The sudden reversal, less than two weeks after Dariyani opened the doors of his restaurant in the Los Angeles suburb of Santa Clarita, left him stunned and in financial trouble. He had stored fresh meat and produce for a busy July 4 weekend, which could now turn into a five-figure loss.

He is struggling, again, to keep 60 workers on the payroll with nearly 300 empty seats inside his restaurant. It has a take-out window and room for 80 in its patios, where customers can eat because the threat of virus transmission is much less outdoors.

The last order “is a big step back for all restaurants,” said Dariyani, who also runs a catering business. “It is not fair to anyone.”

The coronavirus crisis has left millions unemployed, but few businesses have been as affected as California’s approximately 90,000 restaurants. Industry experts predict that up to a third of them will never reopen, while others are trying to navigate a maze of new sanitation rules and physical distancing guidelines that have gutted seat lists and increased internal costs.

“It is chaos,” said Jot Condi, who heads the California Restaurant Association.

California had successfully managed the virus, and until May Newsom moved quickly to reopen much of the economy. But troubling signals emerged in mid-June and have only gotten worse. Confirmed cases and hospitalizations have skyrocketed, and Newsom took steps this week to try to reverse the trend.

The Democratic governor also closed bars, movie theaters, museums, and other places within most of the state. Even singing in churches is prohibited.

The latest request was especially painful for those in the restaurant industry who believed they were doing everything right, investing heavily in staff training and gloves, masks, and other supplies to meet health restrictions.

At the critically acclaimed Guerrilla Tacos in Los Angeles, owner chef Wes Avila had just reopened Wednesday after two weeks of pandemic-era food service employee training. Now, like Dariyani, he has to come up with a new plan.

“There is no consultant you can hire to fix this,” said Avila.

When the outbreak began, Ávila was forced to reduce the size of more than 50 employees to four and switch to takeout and delivery. When it reopened as a sit-down restaurant, it brought in employees and even hired new ones, reaching 46 people.

Now, he worries he’ll have to cut his staff in half after Newsom blocked indoor dining in 19 counties.

Many homeowners believed they had become part of the solution when dinner resumed last month, with limited seating, single-use paper menus, and teams of employees wearing masks to routinely sanitize tables, bathrooms, and other surfaces.

Restaurants were to establish a COVID-19 prevention plan, assess risk in all work areas, and designate a person to oversee security procedures.

“We have not seen evidence to suggest that these cases are from restaurants,” Condi said, referring to the increase in new infections.

That was echoed in the State Senate by Republican leader Shannon Grove of Bakersfield, who lamented that many of the dark restaurants are small, family-run businesses.

“There is no data to show that they are restaurants” that increase the virus cases, he said.

But health officials have linked outbreaks to restaurants, including 14 cases in San Diego County in the past week. In Los Angeles, with its internationally praised food culture, health officials have visited thousands of restaurants to verify compliance with masks and social distancing rules. In many cases, inspectors found problems.

In Orange County, a succession of restaurants has temporarily closed after one or more employees were infected with COVID-19.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, that disappear within two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more serious illness and death.

Even with a capacity limited to 60%, business had been fast for Dariyani during his brief career with meals inside.

He blamed the state for moving too fast to reopen business, and then ordered them to reverse course without warning. With a resigned voice, he acknowledged that “the government has to do what it has to do.”

Can you do it financially with your indoor dining room closed?

“Definitely not,” Dariyani said. But you intend to try. “What is the other option?”


Associated Press writers Stefanie Dazio in Los Angeles, Adam Beam in Sacramento and Julie Watson in San Diego contributed.