The State of California and the County of Los Angeles have given approval for restaurants to once again offer limited outdoor dining as of Friday, January 29.  Good news?  Maybe.

Can local restaurants gear up for outdoor dining in just three days, especially with a huge storm coming in on Thursday?  Not that easily from the answers we received.  

There are just too many variables to the process to guarantee outdoor dining by Friday.  Too many places can’t afford to bring back employees right away.  If you bring back employees and you don’t do business due to people staying home during the storm, you still have to pay those employees.  Most places can’t afford to do that without the additional income.  It’s a financial conundrum.

As John Saffell of Nicola’s Kitchen told Valley News Group, “We were completely caught off guard – all the signs were that we were months away from any reopening!”

Sandra Cordero from Gasolina in Woodland Hills said, “Folks have to understand it’s too risky for us to ‘just’ open back up. Re-re-re-opening is not as easy as switching the lights back on for a restaurant like ours. If we prepare food (as we make everything from scratch and in house) for two days, hire staff back and end up without guests showing up because of the storm, we would lose thousands of dollars a day, something we can’t recoup or afford. Gasolina Cafe will be feeding the healthcare hero’s at Kaiser Hospital for the next two weeks, and will offer a pre-order special Valentine’s Day dinner on February 13 and 14. If all is looking positive after that we will re-re-re-re-Open with dinner service!!!”

It isn’t as easy as we diners would like to think it is.  But this is what has to be done in a pandemic world.  Yes, the restaurants that can do outdoor dining will benefit, but maybe not initially.  Perhaps it will take time to reopen and get up to speed.  Many places may need to add outdoor dining incrementally or take their time to give the new regulations to be applied.

Questions remain –  can they get tents and lights and other equipment in place in time?  Possibly.  Many restaurants removed their outdoor tents and equipment for safety reasons.  Putting all those things back in place in two days might not happen.  Add to it that all of it has to be disinfected.  It makes things mighty difficult.

Billy Edwards, a west valley resident and partner in Pico Party Event Rentals, says with the order lifted and rain coming they are doubling their efforts. “This is the craziest we have seen in the almost-100 years of our family business,” he said. “The restaurant business has kept us level, as most of our tent rentals are normally weekends only. But supplying the restaurants has kept us going. We’re not breaking the bank, trust me, but it has been steady.” He added that not just restaurants, but also gyms and hospitals, have needed tents, flooring, fencing and more. He spoke about the unique restrictions for restaurants. “You can’t enclose a tent completely, which defeats most of the purpose, but you do have to contend with the weather. How do you build a tent to retain heat…with a couple of side walls. With the new safe distancing regulations you used to order a tent for 60, you now need one for 200. The only good thing for our business and for the restaurants is that the city has told everyone ‘just get it done.’ They’ve expedited the fire and safety permits.”

If you have the employees and equipment, you still have to have the food to serve.  Ordering, receiving and prepping enough to satisfy the customers you might have is tough.  Any restaurants that marinate dishes overnight are really up against it.  There just isn’t time.

There is also the uncertainty factor. If the numbers go back up, or even stay the same, the county and state could opt to remove the outdoor dining option once again.  The open or closed order is making it difficult for many sit-down restaurants, both financially and in keeping patrons.  If people aren’t sure you are open or they can stay for a meal, they won’t consider your restaurant.

Stella Olivas, partner at Fleming’s Woodland Hills, explained, “The up and down on health orders is a struggle for our industry.  Financially it’s been a burden paying for outdoor setups and wondering when we will be able to use them again, all the while paying for them to sit there and look pretty. It’s been a frustrating roller coaster for us as owners and operators and for our people who rely on tip money to pay for basic needs. We only hope our guests understand that we are doing the best we can to keep them and our people safe when we do reopen and understand that all protocols are for safety. We can’t wait to be back as a staple for the community and to see familiar faces!”

No matter how long it takes, we should all be ready to participate in this sign that things are getting better – and support our local restaurants now.

Laura Levinsky is a lifelong valley resident and still waiting for her age group to be vaccinated.