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Did shutting down outdoor dining spur California’s COVID-19 surge?

Questions are mounting about California Governor Gavin Newsom’s pandemic ban on outdoor dining, as experts suggest it may have fueled infections by driving gatherings into homes, and furious restaurateurs are filing suit challenging the order.

Newsom’s order on December 3 quickly shut down outdoor dining statewide, just days after Los Angeles had implemented its own ban, despite officials admitting there was no evidence linking outdoor dining to infections.

California is one of the few states with a climate conducive to outdoor dining in the winter, and experts question whether the outdoor ban only encouraged more risky indoor gatherings. 

‘It shut down in early December, and things did not get better from there; things actually got worse,’ Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease expert at UCSF, told SFGate. ‘We won’t be able to know the exact percentage it drove, but I would say closing outdoor dining certainly did not help and likely hindered efforts to avoid a surge,’ she said.  

California has averaged 500 deaths per day over the past two weeks, and the death toll there has contributed to the surge in deaths across the U.S., which recorded its second deadliest day of the pandemic on Wednesday with 4,229 fatalities.

California Governor Gavin Newsom’s pandemic ban on outdoor dining may have fueled infections by driving gatherings into homes, experts say

In early December, when Newsom implemented his ban, new COVID-19 cases (left) and deaths (right) in California were already sharply rising, but they have continued to go up

In early December, when Newsom implemented his ban, new COVID-19 cases (left) and deaths (right) in California were already sharply rising, but they have continued to go up

Wednesday marks the third time that the U.S. daily death toll has surpassed 4,000 and is second only to January 12 on which 4,327 deaths were recorded, according to a DailyMail.com analysis of data from Johns Hopkins University.  

Since the pandemic began, 406,162 people in the U.S. have died from COVID-19. 

The grim milestone came on the same day President Joe Biden was inaugurated and exactly one year to the day since the first case of the virus was recorded in the U.S. in Washington state. Since then 24.4 million Americans have tested positive.

In the first order he signed since arriving at the White House, Biden on Wednesday mandated masks and physical distancing in all federal buildings and the development of a testing program for federal employees for COVID-19.

Biden’s order says federal employees, contractors and others in federal buildings or on federal lands should ‘wear masks, maintain physical distance, and adhere to other public health measures, as provided in (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines.’

The president directed agencies to ‘immediately take action…to require compliance with CDC guidelines’ and for employees to wear masks and engage in social distancing. He called for all Americans to wear masks for 100 days. 

It comes on the heels of a recent CDC projection that the national death toll could rise as high as 508,000 by February 13 – a figure higher than the population of Atlanta.

On Wednesday, the U.S. recorded the second deadliest day of the coronavirus pandemic with 4,229 deaths with a total death toll of 406,162

On Wednesday, the U.S. recorded the second deadliest day of the coronavirus pandemic with 4,229 deaths with a total death toll of 406,162 

Wednesday also marked one year to the day since the first case of the virus was recorded in Washington state with more than 24.4 million people since testing positive

Wednesday also marked one year to the day since the first case of the virus was recorded in Washington state with more than 24.4 million people since testing positive

In California, when Newsom implemented his outdoor dining ban, news cases of COVID-19 were already sharply rising, and totaled around 20,000 per day. 

They peaked at more than double that earlier this month, and as of Tuesday the seven-day rolling average of daily new cases was 38,368.

Though there is no way to be certain whether the outdoor dining ban caused an increase in transmission, experts suspect it could have contributed to the surge. 

‘Restrictions should be about understanding the human condition and keeping places that are safe open,’ said Gandhi. ‘Those of us who argue for a harm reduction approach have the same goal as the lockdownists: We want to reduce transmission, but we understand the human condition and the need to be with people.’ 

In California, as elsewhere, there is reason to believe that harsh restrictions on public gatherings have driven social activity underground. 

In Los Angeles, sheriff’s deputies busted several secret parties with hundreds in attendance last weekend.

Sorrento Restaurant and Bar is seen in San Diego's in Little Italy this month. Orders have banned outdoor dining in most of California since early December

Sorrento Restaurant and Bar is seen in San Diego’s in Little Italy this month. Orders have banned outdoor dining in most of California since early December

Newsom, a Democrat, was repeatedly pressed in December to offer evidence that outdoor dining contributed to the spread of COVID-19, but declined to do so, saying his restrictions were intended to send a message to the public discouraging socializing.

Meanwhile, a consortium of over 50 restaurants, wineries, tasting rooms and suppliers across Napa and Sonoma counties filed a lawsuit against Newsom on Tuesday.

The group alleges that the state’s ban on outdoor dining is ‘arbitrary, irrational, and unfair’ and has had a ‘ravaging’ effect on the industry. 

According to the complaint, the state regulations unfairly targeted restaurants, wineries, and tasting rooms by banning outdoor dining ‘indefinitely and without scientific basis.’

“All we ask is to be treated fairly and in accordance with the science,’ said Carl Dene of Sam’s General Store in Calistoga.

‘Though the data shows we can operate outdoors safely, our state officials continue to shut us down while trusting big-box retail stores to operate in much riskier indoor settings,’ he added.

Teo Galindo sweeps up leaves in the street under a tent that was used for outdoor dinning at Solunto Restaurant and Bakery in Little Italy on Monday, Jan. 4, 2021 in San Diego, CA

Teo Galindo sweeps up leaves in the street under a tent that was used for outdoor dinning at Solunto Restaurant and Bakery in Little Italy on Monday, Jan. 4, 2021 in San Diego, CA

The coalition members said the ban has destroyed small businesses, plunging them into debt and forcing countless layoffs and permanent closures. 

‘We’re projected to have lost more than $3.5 million in gross revenue last year,’ said Chef Anthony ‘Nash’ Cognetti, Executive Chef and Founder of Tre Posti in St. Helena. 

“The latest shutdowns have forced us to layoff 95 valuable staff members, and it’s devastating to consider what this has meant for them and their families,’ he added. 

‘If we make it through the dining ban, we fear there won’t be enough local industry workers left to rebuild our staff.”

The complaint, filed in Napa County Superior Court, alleges that the state’s outdoor dining and wine tasting ban violates the equal protection, due process, and takings clauses of the California Constitution. 

The lawsuit asks the court to declare the outdoor dining and wine tasting ban in violation of the California Constitution and stop the ban’s enforcement. 

Governor Newsom’s press office did not immediately respond to an inquiry from DailyMail.com on Thursday requesting a response to the lawsuit. 


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