California restaurants can restart outdoor dining soon. Epidemiologist weighs in on whether it’s safe

Written by Amy Ta, produced by Brian Hardzinski

At Janga by Derrick's Jamaican Cuisine in Culver City, chairs sit on top of patio tables, January 21, 2021. Like other restaurants in the LA area, this one was forced to suspend sit-down dining in mid-December 2020 due to coronavirus. But starting January 29, 2021, area restaurants will be allowed to serve customers outdoors again. Photo by Amy Ta/KCRW

Governor Gavin Newsom on Monday canceled the statewide stay-at-home order he put in place last month because of surging COVID-19 cases. He said at a press conference, “Effective immediately all regions in the state of California … are no longer in the stay-at-home order and will move back into … a blueprint for a safer economy.”

Newsom says he looked at projections that ICU capacity will soon be above 15% in some parts of the state. California now returns to the color-tiered system, which allows counties to open businesses based on the number of cases and positivity rates. The governor’s move also clears the way for restaurants to open outdoor dining and salons to offer limited indoor services.

In LA, restaurants will be allowed to start outdoor dining as soon as Friday, while salons and other personal care services can reopen immediately.

The decision was greeted with praise from the business community, but skepticism from some epidemiologists, especially as new variant strains are circulating in California.

“We are at a very critical moment here. We're reaping some of the fruits of our hard labor. But I think if we start to ease up on our restrictions, we could very easily be tipping back over the edge in a short time period,” says Anne Rimoin, professor of epidemiology at UCLA.

Should the governor and LA county have held off for a few more weeks?

“Everybody is anxious to move forward, and they're trying to balance what they're trying to do here. Of course, as an epidemiologist that’s focused on public health aspects … I of course preferred to see maybe a little bit more time to really gain some ground here, especially with these new variants that are starting to emerge. ... The message to people is, again, just because you can do things doesn't mean you should.”

Rimoin says if people are going to be in public, they should wear a high quality mask, and if they don’t have a KN95 mask or one with excellent filtration, they should wear double masks.

She adds, “Do your best to stay as far away from other people as possible, avoid crowds. … One of the things that drove a lot of this epidemic were [sic] when people start to see each other in their homes … you start to let your guard down, take your mask off.”

She says with new variants, people have to be more cautious. “Any chinks in our armor are going to be exploited. So really doubling down on all of these efforts, it's going to be important.”

Credits

Guest:
Anne Rimoin - professor of epidemiology at UCLA - @arimoin

Host:
Madeleine Brand

Producers:
Sarah Sweeney, Angie Perrin, Michell Eloy, Amy Ta, Rosalie Atkinson, Brian Hardzinski, Bennett Purser