After months of crippling COVID-19 closures, Los Angeles County on Monday unlocked a significant portion of its battered business sector, allowing the return of in-restaurant dining and the resumption of indoor activities at gyms, movie theaters and elsewhere.
Proprietors and employees alike hope the latest round of reopenings — prompted by falling numbers of new coronavirus cases and rising vaccinations — will give the region’s economy a desperately needed shot in the arm.
But business as usual remains a far-off concept for now, and those establishments that are open are still subject to restrictions on how many customers they can serve at any one time, as well as requirements for physical distancing and face coverings.
L.A.’s wider reopening was made possible by its advancement from the purple tier, the strictest category in the state’s four-level coronavirus roadmap, to the more lenient red tier.
A dozen other counties — Orange, San Bernardino, Contra Costa, Sonoma, Placer, Mendocino, San Benito, Tuolumne, Siskiyou, Amador, Colusa and Mono — also officially progressed over the weekend.
Those 12, along with L.A., are home to a total of 17.7 million Californians.
Moving from purple to red clears the way for those counties to permit indoor dining at restaurants and movie theater showings at 25% capacity, welcome back students in person in grades 7 through 12, reopen indoor gyms and dance and yoga studios at 10% capacity, and expand capacity restrictions at nonessential stores and libraries.
Museums, zoos and aquariums also can reopen indoor operations, at 25% capacity.
Starting April 1, amusement parks can reopen at 15% capacity, with other modifications, in red-level counties. Attractions such as Disneyland, Universal Studios, Knott’s Berry Farm and Six Flags Magic Mountain will initially be required to limit visitors to California residents.
Outdoor sports, with fans, and outdoor live performances also will be allowed to resume April 1, provided they adhere to restrictions on capacity and concession sales that vary based on their home county’s tier assignment.
While L.A. waited until Monday for its red-tier reopenings, other counties — notably San Bernardino and Orange — threw their proverbial doors open as soon as they were allowed on Sunday.
Virginia Ramirez, a hostess at Belgian Waffle Works in Lake Arrowhead, said the dining room of the popular family restaurant was slammed Sunday morning. “We’re really busy,” she said.
At Social Costa Mesa, a trendy New American eatery, patrons were eager to dine indoors, said Robert Garcia, the manager on duty.
“Business is solid right now,” he said over the clink of tableware and chatter of customers. “I can’t complain. We’re lucky to have what we have going on.”
But other establishments said customers were slower to return.
“It’s not a matter of when the government says you can open, it’s when people reestablish that routine,” said John Connor, owner of Tudor House, a historic dinner theater in Lake Arrowhead. “It’ll be a slow process for people to get their big-boy pants on.”
He said heavy snowfall made heated tents impractical for restaurants in the mountain resort town and unattractive to the area.
“Right now, 90% of the public doesn’t even know we’re open,” he said.
But he had high hopes for April, when he planned to host a mystery theater show.
Opening more venues is not cause for Californians to let their guard down, Dr. Mark Ghaly, the state’s health and human services secretary, said during a briefing Friday. He said there is still reason to be cautious about participating in newly allowed activities, such as dining indoors at restaurants, as any venue where people aren’t wearing masks the entire time carries a risk for infection.
Mixing with people from another household, for instance, should still be done carefully, and it remains safer to dine outdoors than inside in a mixed-group setting, he said.
L.A. County health officer Dr. Muntu Davis cautioned that eating in a restaurant’s indoor dining room still has risks and dining outdoors remains safer.
“People are susceptible to this virus. There are variants that are circulating in our county,” he said. “Many of those can be more easily transmitted, and some may be causing more severe disease.”
The lingering risk of dining indoors at restaurants is one reason L.A. County is requiring that those eating together live in the same household. It is permissible, however, for people from up to three households to dine at the same table outdoors.
Davis said it’s probably better for people who are at high risk for severe illness and death from COVID-19 to avoid dining inside at a restaurant.