Restaurants have been ordered to give up outdoor seating. Photo by Brennon Dixson.

As the restaurant industry struggles to stay afloat, an LA County grant is offering businesses a $30,000 lifeline with a catch — only certain small restaurants qualify, while the rest are left to sink or swim.

The Keep L.A. County Dining Program comes in the wake of a controversial decision to shut down outdoor dining for three weeks, and will provide a limited number of restaurants with funds for payroll, operational expenses and adaptations to COVID-19 restrictions.

L.A. County has 31,000 restaurants, according to County Public Health Director Dr. Barbara Ferrer, and the grant will accept the first 2,500 applications.

To qualify restaurants must meet several criteria, including being independently owned, having a fixed brick and mortar location with a full service kitchen, and—the kicker for many restaurants—employing less than 25 people.

“We qualify for every one of those elements and I look forward to filling that application out and if we are lucky enough to get the funds, using that to keep our staff employed through the holidays and into the new year,” said Jeffrey Merrihue, owner of Heroic Deli in Downtown Santa Monica.

Sheldon Kozushko, a manager at 1212 restaurant on the promenade, is not as thrilled. While 1212 meets six of the seven grant qualifications, it employs more than 25 people.

“We fit every other requirement, why are we penalized because we hire more people?” said Kozushko. “We have a substantial impact on the community because we hire more people. Restaurants take a lot of people to run. Twenty-five seems like a very low number.”

Restaurants, small and large alike, are reaching a moment of crisis in L.A. County. Federal funding through the Payroll Protection Program ended in Aug., changing restrictions have led to costly cycles of firing and rehiring, and outdoor dining and PPE have added new expenses.

“Restaurants have been hit by the proverbial insult to injury, while we were all in the Covid crisis together, only restaurants were urged to spend tens of thousands of dollars to build outdoor seating to then have it immediately shut down,” said Merrihue. “Without assistance we would go bankrupt.”

Merrihue spent $80,000 on outdoor dining permits and building an outdoor structure with booths, umbrellas, plants, and heaters, which he says has been the Deli’s salvation. Prior to hearing about the grant program, Merrihue feared the closure of outdoor dining would cause the closure of his business.

The L.A. County Board of Supervisors voted three to two to uphold the outdoor dining ban. On Nov. 24. Sup. Sheila Kuehl cast a deciding vote supporting the ban in the afternoon and dined outdoors at Il Forno in Santa Monica that evening, prompting outrage from many restaurateurs.

“It’s just disgusting. You are a public figure. I just don’t understand the disconnect, to say that you think outdoor dining is harmful and to frame it in a way as if it’s the service industry workers who are at risk as if you’re protecting them, it’s just total BS,” said Kozushko.

Restaurants in Pasadena are not eligible for the grant program, as the Pasadena Health Department chose to keep restaurants open. Restaurants in the city of Los Angeles are also ineligible for the grant as the city of L.A. received its own CARES Act funding.

Applications are open Dec. 3 to 6 or until 2,500 applications are received. Funds will be split equally throughout each Supervisorial District and restaurants that provided outdoor dining will be given preference.