Los Angeles Restrictions on Outdoor Dining Were Arbitrary, California Judge Rules

The debate over coronavirus restrictions in California continued on Tuesday after a county judge made a tentative ruling that health officials acted arbitrarily when banning outdoor dining late last month.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge James Chalfant said in a 53-page ruling that the state's most populous county "failed to perform the required risk-benefit analysis" before issuing the ban.

"By failing to weigh the benefits of an outdoor dining restriction against its costs, the county acted arbitrarily and its decision lacks a rational relationship to a legitimate end," Chalfant wrote.

"The balance of harms works in petitioners' favor until such time as the county concludes after proper risk-benefit analysis that restaurants must be closed to protect the healthcare system," he added.

Chalfant said the assertion from county officials that the coronavirus can be spread when unmasked residents are exposed to one another for extended periods "weakly supports" the closure of outdoor dining, especially when it ignores the outdoor aspect of the activity. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said such dining carries a moderate risk.

He noted that even if the decision were finalized, it would not immediately reinstate outdoor restaurant dining because of Governor Gavin Newsom's recent regional stay-at-home order, which took effect Sunday night. Under Newsom's order, restaurants have been required to revert to takeout and delivery service only.

Chalfant limited the ban to three weeks so that it would end December 16, but the state order will remain in place until December 27. He said county public health officials would need to conduct a new analysis in order to extend the closures after the new deadline.

LA Outdoor Dining
A tented area for outdoor dining stands empty on the first day of new stay-at-home orders on December 7 in Los Angeles. A judge made a tentative ruling on Tuesday that Los Angeles County health officials acted arbitrarily when banning outdoor dining. Mario Tama/Getty

After the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted 3–2 to support the ban on outdoor dining, the county's public health department restricted in-person dining on November 25.

Los Angeles County has been one of California's hardest-hit regions. As of December 8, the county has reported more than 430,000 confirmed cases of the virus and over 7,500 deaths, according to the health department's dashboard.

The tentative ruling comes in response to lawsuits filed by the California Restaurant Association and the owner of Engine Co. No. 28 restaurant, Mark Geragos.

In a statement announcing the legal challenge, Jot Condie, CEO of the California Restaurant Association, said the order was made "with no stated scientific basis."

"There are thousands of restaurants and many thousands more employees who could be out on the street right before the holiday season," Condie said.

In his tentative ruling, Chalfant asked the county "to consider the economic cost of closing 30,000 restaurants, the impact to restaurant owners and their employees and the psychological and emotional cost to a public tired of the pandemic and seeking some form of enjoyment in their lives."

The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health declined Newsweek's request for comment on the pending litigation. But it said that the county is "committed to protecting the health and safety of its residents from a deadly virus that has claimed the lives of nearly 8,000 of our friends, family and neighbors and that has sickened more than 450,000 people just in L.A. County."

This story was updated at 5:01 p.m. with a statement from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.