How much are restaurants contributing to the spread of COVID-19 in LA County?

Data from the county health department shows a small percentage of outbreaks have been tied to restaurants and bars. But some have been cited for coronavirus-related violations.
LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- Despite orders to suspend outdoor dining in Los Angeles County amid an increase in coronavirus cases, Eyewitness News has found restaurants have been linked to less than 4% of coronavirus outbreaks in non-residential settings, according to data from L.A. County.

The order takes effect Wednesday at 10 p.m. and requires restaurants to restrict their services to take out and delivery.

But how much responsibility do restaurants bear for recent increases in coronavirus cases?

Public Health Director Dr. Barbara Ferrer admitted the county often can't say where individuals contracted COVID-19.

"I wish we could answer this question. I think people would feel better if we could say with certainty where people got infected, but we just can't," Ferrer said during a Monday press briefing.

In explaining the decision to suspend outdoor dining, Ferrer pointed to county data that indicated food and beverage establishments comprised roughly 41% of the 76 coronavirus-related citations issued in L.A. County during the first two weeks of November.

However, more recent data from the past week indicated restaurants have made up more than half of the 1,331 county inspections, increasing the odds of a restaurant experiencing a violation.

Despite the elevated share of inspections, restaurants were found to follow disinfection orders 96% of the time, mask requirements 91% of the time and physical distancing orders 81% of the time.

But the 19% not following distancing rules worried officials.

"While there is high compliance at a majority of our restaurants, in a county of this size just having a few thousand restaurants not in compliance, particularly on the distancing requirement, can create additional risk for exposures," Ferrer said.

She expressed particular concern about people from different households dining together at restaurants, as the county encounters a nearly 35% increase in the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 over seven days.

"People are eating and drinking and they are not wearing face masks for the majority of time that they are there," Ferrer said. "When they are gathered with people who are not in their households, there winds up being a significant amount of risk associated with those activities that can, in fact, increase our spread."

Restaurant owners and the California Restaurant Association have described the county's order as unfair and detrimental to business.

They challenged the order in court and asked a judge to allow restaurants to continue outdoor dining. The judge denied the request.

"Outdoor dining is safe," said Dennis Ellis, an attorney representing the California Restaurant Association. "We have not been able to see what the county has to support that outdoor dining at 50% capacity is inappropriate and needs to shut down."

L.A. County Supervisor Kathryn Barger also expressed dismay with the county order during a Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday.

"I feel like the restaurant industry was basically used as a pawn," Barger said. "There is no logic and that is my frustration. You know what I hear is the inconsistencies that continue to take place not only in the county but in the state as well, have put people in a situation where there's a lack of trust in the people making these decisions because they seem very arbitrary and very random."

During Tuesday's meeting, Barger tried unsuccessfully to rescind the upcoming ban. Her motion did not receive the votes required to pass.

Grace Manthey contributed to this report.
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