Furloughed servers at 1212 restaurant in Downtown Santa Monica. Courtesy photo.

With little relief in sight, restaurants are organizing in an unprecedented collective effort to fight what they perceive as a senseless and hypocritical ban on outdoor dining.

From a grassroots petition by a Santa Monica restaurant manager, to a City wide restaurant coalition and a County level lawsuit, hospitality workers are working together to advocate for their industry’s survival.

Since March, restaurants have faced a constantly shifting landscape of challenges, including lockdown, capacity restrictions, differing health protocols, and the need for summer and winter outdoor dining setups. Many restaurants see the County’s latest ban as not only an insurmountable challenge to their business, but also an unfair one given the lack of data connecting the current spike in cases to outdoor dining.

“With the new restrictions, I had to do one of the hardest things I have ever done: furlough employees with no guarantee of support,” said Sheldon Kozushko, manager at 1212 restaurant in Downtown Santa Monica. “It’s hard not only for the businesses, it’s also heartbreaking to see people who have families who depend on these jobs and who want to work, but now can’t work.”

In response, Kozushko started a petition to the L.A. County Board of Supervisors to bring back outdoor dining.

“It’s a pretty small petition and it’s pretty grassroots, but I think the first step is letting people’s voices be heard,” said Kozushko. “I feel like it’s my responsibility to show the people at 1212 that I’m doing what I can to fight for their job.”

The Independent Hospitality Coalition, a LA based group of around 500 restaurants and 20,000 employees, is also advocating to overturn the ban.

“Obviously we have no desire to do anything that will continue to spread COVID unabated. We just think it’s (the ban) a not only a gross overreach, but it’s also unwarranted, because the data doesn’t support a direct link to outdoor dining as a cause of this rapid rise in COVID,” said Hunter Hall, IHC board member and executive director of Main Street Business Improvement Association.

Hall points to election and sports celebrations, colder weather, Halloween, COVID fatigue, house parties, and events like weddings as more probable causes of the spike. He said that if outdoor dining was a significant spreader of COVID, then the low County case rates in the late summer and early fall would not have correlated with the peak of outdoor dining.

The IHC is utilizing its wide membership to call on County supervisors to reevaluate the decision to close outdoor dining, to work with restaurants to agree upon science-based metrics for reopening versus staying closed, and to reallocate CARES Act funds to independent restaurants and bars specifically.

The IHC also supports the lawsuit the California Restaurant Association filed against county health officials. On Dec. 2 a judge in the case ordered officials present a data-driven case to justify the outdoor dining ban.

“This ruling doesn’t mean that outdoor dining can immediately resume in L.A. County, particularly since the county has since issued a stay-at-home order,” said Jot Condie, CRA president and CEO in a Dec. 2 statement. “However, it’s our expectation that if the county is unable to produce evidence justifying this decision, then outdoor dining should be allowed to resume as soon as the stay-at-home order is lifted.”

A silver lining to these advocacy efforts is that the restaurant industry in Los Angeles and across the nation is building brand new infrastructure for collective organizing with the potential to benefit workers long after the pandemic.

The IHC for example, was first formed in response the pandemic in March and is now a registered 501c6 with a robust membership. The organization is aligned with independent restaurant groups throughout the country who are collectively lobbying for a federal restaurant relief act.

Hall, who has worked in hospitality lobbying for decades, is excited about this new movement but worries that if their efforts are unsuccessful there will be a permanent and devastating loss of small businesses.

“The future of not just Santa Monica, but the nation in general, when it comes to independent restaurants with onerous regulations and the devastating effects of COVID is that there’s going to be much fewer smaller, family owned, hospitality based businesses,” said Hall. “Imagine a Main Street full of TGI Fridays or a Montana Avenue with nothing but Hardee’s.”