Andrew Binder, above, is the fourth-generation owner of Philippe’s, Downtown’s legendary French dip spot.

After a 10-week hiatus on restaurant dine-in service due to COVID-19—a

pause that has been financially devastating for many businesses but widely recognized as a vital step in preventing the spread of the virus—the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health announced May 29 that restaurants can reopen on a modified basis.

The ordinance change, which some restaurateurs found abrupt, is intend-

ed to help businesses get back on their feet while moving the county into the next phase of recovery.

At Philippe’s, Downtown’s legendary French dip spot, fourth-generation

owner and managing partner Andrew Binder received the development with

some warmth. “We reacted in a better fashion than when the initial ordinance to stop dine-in happened,” he said. “We had a six-hour notice.”

This development is a sign that progress has been made in the fight to sup-

press the virus, but LA County Supervisor Janice Hahn also noted that it is fragile and dependent on the continuation of mask wearing and physical distancing.

“This is a fine line that we’re walking in the county of Los Angeles,” she said.

“We are threading the needle between keeping the public safe and allowing

our economy to reopen.”

Los Angeles County remains the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic

in California, with hundreds of new cases still being reported daily. The total

number of cases in the county exceeds 56,000, with more than 2,300 deaths.

Shortly after the announcement was made, the city released a number of protocols to guide restaurants and diners while they adjust to this new development. They include measures such as prioritizing outdoor seating and curbside pickup, maintaining physical distancing within establishments, screening employees and customers for COVID-19 symptoms, the continued closure of bar areas, mandatory face coverings for customers who are not eating, and a limited dine-in capacity—no more than 60% for the next three weeks.

Binder has prepared Philippe’s for reopening by reconfiguring the dining

area, adding wooden stations to create separation between customers, and

spacing out the dining room by using smaller tables.

“Because we do have such a large restaurant, we’re expecting to be able to

work at the restricted capacity,” he said. “If that doesn’t work, we’re looking at maybe utilizing our parking lot.”

Despite the ability to immediately restart dine-in service, Binder said

Philippe’s is planning to wait until June 8 to see how other restaurants treat

this new development.

“We want to see how the trend goes,” he said. “We didn’t want to rush and

wanted to be 100% certain in our roll-out of this.”

Sonoratown, the lauded Downtown taqueria, responded to the announcement with an Instagram post saying it “will not be reopening the dining room at this time” and will continue offering takeout.

Victor Delgado, who founded the Tijuana-style taqueria Tacos 1986, called the restrictions “limiting.”

“I felt there were still guidelines that needed to be shared with us, because you’ve seen some restaurants not even going to dine-in because the restrictions are so limiting,” Delgado said.

“Opening a dining room for 30 people instead of 60 people who you can

sit, sometimes it just doesn’t make any sense. Every time someone dines, they want you to clean, disinfect and leave it untouched for like 10 minutes, then someone can sit down. For us, we’re going to wait and see if there’s any more clarification on the guidelines we need to follow. For now, we’re going to hold out and wait.”

There are several risks that go along with opening the restaurant as well, he

said. “I think the risk is that you don’t want the city to come in and fine you or

close you down for not following the health department rules,” Delgado said.

“So, until it’s very clear about how it’s going to be done, I don’t want to risk

that. I don’t want anyone to come in and fine us, so I would rather wait till we have that so we can train staff accordingly to follow those rules and regulations. If there’s more specific guidelines on standing-room restaurants and patios, then I’ll reconsider it.”

Other Los Angeles restaurateurs have pointed to the health and financial

risks involved with reopening—an expensive process that, if a second wave of

the novel coronavirus should hit, would compound the financial losses they

have already endured.

Some restaurants may wish to proceed with reopening but lack the space

to accommodate physical distancing requirements. In response, Councilman

Mike Bonin of the 11th District advanced a proposal called “LA Al Fresco”—a

phrase that refers to dining outside in the open air—that Mayor Eric Garcetti

has supported and launched.

LA Al Fresco allows restaurants to apply for a permit that allows them to

serve dine-in customers outdoors, on sidewalks and in parking lots. Soon, LA

Al Fresco may be expanded to include partial or fully closed streets.

“We are cutting red tape and making it easier for restaurants to use and

share outside spaces,” Bonin said. “This will protect the health and safety of

restaurant employees and customers by making it easier to accommodate

physical distancing.”

The temporary Al Fresco permits will be valid for 90 days, after which restaurants can reapply.

The whirlwind past few months have been challenging for many business

sectors, but there’s no question that restaurants have taken a particularly hard thumping.

When asked how he plans to manage this new challenge of reopening,

Binder had this to say: “It’s the same as these last months. Just roll with the

punches and think on your feet.”