As Orange County’s coastal hotspot, Laguna Beach is known for drawing big crowds. Its picturesque shorelines, world-class art galleries, and highly-ranked restaurants have made it a go-to destination for county residents and tourists alike.
But today, the scene in the Southern California city is much different. As one of Orange County’s only cities to enforce regional stay-at-home orders, the buzz of Laguna Beach’s dining scene has gone quiet.
City staff has removed tables, chairs, and umbrellas from parklets in the downtown areas, and is willing to cite restaurants that don’t follow stay-at-home guidelines, said City Manager John Pietig.
“The city prefers that businesses voluntarily comply, but we will follow up with enforcement action if necessary,” Pietig told The Epoch Times via email. “[It] is promoting take out and deliveries and encouraging residents to support their local restaurants and businesses through its newsletter and ads in local papers.”
Non-compliant restaurants could face between $100 and $500 fines, The Laguna Beach Indy reported.
The regional Southern California stay-at-home order, which includes Orange County, began Dec. 7 when intensive care units (ICU) at hospitals dipped below 15 percent capacity. It prohibits restaurants from offering indoor or outdoor dining. Eateries can remain open only to facilitate takeout orders.
For now, Laguna Beach will continue to abide by the state’s guidelines.
The parklets were created as part of a summer initiative to support outdoor dining on Forest Avenue, a hub for the city’s restaurants and local businesses. Now, local restaurant owners are feeling the weight without outdoor dining and wonder how they’ll make it through the holidays.
Chef and 230 Forest Avenue owner Marc Cohen said it took him until November to bounce back financially from the initial round of shutdowns implemented in March. He has let go 75 percent of his 40-person staff since the restrictions went into effect.
“And now, here we are—we’re gonna start all over again,” Cohen told The Epoch Times.
“Except this time, it’s worse, because there’s no pent-up demand. There was when all the businesses were closed for two months—there was a pent-up demand to eat out, to get out, and do things—and now people are spending money at Christmas and have other obligations.”
Cohen thinks the restrictions will be extended beyond Dec. 27, the earliest the regional orders could be lifted. He said his restaurant wouldn’t have survived without the city’s outdoor dining initiative in the summer.
“I’m hoping that we have more information about funding or grants or something, so that we can support our staff,” he said.
His restaurant, 230 Forest Avenue, has been on the strip for more than two decades and specializes in seafood and handcrafted cocktails. Many of Cohen’s employees rely on his business being open full-time. He called the current situation “just heartbreaking for my staff and their families.”
“Every week it’s something different, and they keep moving the line. … The state seems to be able to get away with it well. We’re kind of left in the middle of a no man’s land to do the best we can with what we have,” Cohen said.
“It’s been very inconsistent from the top down, and so I think that’s what’s led to all the confusion and anger … Everybody’s been very inconsistent with their statements.”
The Orange County Sheriff’s Department and the Orange County Health Care Agency both stated they will not be enforcing the stay-at-home orders; however, each municipality will have the ability to enforce it at the city level.
Small business owner and Councilmember Peter Blake told The Epoch Times he’s not in support of the outdoor dining ban because he hasn’t seen proof that outdoor dining is a significant cause of the spike.
“If anything, it appears that home gatherings are part of the problem,” Blake said.
The plan seeks to make the city more business-friendly by encouraging tourists and locals to more actively shop and dine in the city. Many small business owners can’t afford the rent to run a business long-term in the city; a number of long-time restaurants and shops closed permanently even before the pandemic hit.
“This will totally bankrupt small businesses,” Blake said. “The first closures came with loans, grants, and [Paycheck Protection Program] money. This one comes at Christmas with nothing but lip service from politicians and bureaucrats.”
To adjust to the outdoor dining ban, Wine Gallery Laguna Beach owner Chris Olsen turned his boutique winery-eatery into a takeout-delivery only model.
He furloughed all 25 of his employees during the first closures and only kept his chef on. But this second shutdown “stung a lot more” because he “followed all the mandates.” He’s already let go of his dishwasher and busboy.
“I always wanted to follow the rules, but [doing it] a couple weeks before Christmas and with no real scientific evidence—you know everyone wants to follow the science, but then L.A. County Health Division admitted that there’s no proven scientific correlation between outdoor dining and increase in transmission of cases,” Olsen told The Epoch Times.
Olsen still has to pay his $7,500 monthly rent, but said he’s optimistic.
“It’s just day-to-day over here, but we’ll be okay,” he said. “We’ll get through it.”