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Why the State Closed Outdoor Dining

Restaurants along Third Avenue in Chula Vista set up outdoor dining amidst the coronavirus pandemic. / Photo by Brittany Cruz-Fejeran

I can’t remember how many people asked me this week to help them understand the new rules and restrictions that came with the latest stay-at-home order from the state. It was a lot, and it was confusing.

Outdoor dining was no longer allowed but the governor and state health officials encouraged outdoor fitness classes and recreation. Retail stores could operate with severe limitations on how many people could be inside. You could go skiing but you weren’t supposed to travel for nonessential needs, like to go skiing.

The complexity, and the conflicting logic, which took the governor 30 minutes to lay out last week, caused stress and confusion.

This week, as the order set in, two different radio hosts asked me to explain the state’s rationale for closing outdoor restaurants. Was there any data that justified it? Were they responsible for outbreaks?

The answer was no. The county still does not share data about outbreaks. A judge in Los Angeles ruled health officials there could not prove it was a risk.

If there were outbreaks associated with restaurants, it’s likely that it happened indoors among their staffs and kitchens. And the state is allowing them to keep those operating for takeout and delivery.

Struggling to explain the public health order, I guessed that closing outdoor dining was a way of communicating something simpler about how you shouldn’t go out to do things. Ben Higgins, from 97.3 The Fan, listened to me and made an analogy that it was kind of like calling cannabis a gateway drug: Outdoor dining leads to other, harder forms of dining. If we allow it to be OK to dine together then the taboo is weak on many other sorts of gatherings, however spaced.

On Tuesday, California Health and Human Services Agency Secretary Mark Ghaly confirmed a version of our guesses.

“The decision to include among other sectors outdoor dining and limiting that — turning to restaurants to deliver and provide takeout options instead — really has to do with the goal of trying to keep people at home, not a comment on the relative safety of outdoor dining,” he said at a public briefing [1], as cited by Politico.

In one sentence, he treated us like adults and confirmed what I had struggled to articulate on the radio. They’re not closing outdoor dining because it’s particularly risky; they’re closing it because they must send a message that people should stay home and go out only for important needs or to take care of your body and your physical fitness.

They are alarmed by this graph of hospitalizations.

COVID-19 Hospital Daily Census in San Diego County

“Do not go out except to get things you need and take care of your body,” would have been a lot easier to understand. Agree or disagree, it’s much clearer and easier to comply with.

So why didn’t they just say that? Last Thursday, Gov. Gavin Newsom spent a minute saying how much he empathized with restaurant owners and employees who were struggling, but he didn’t once just explain why they should shut down after all the money spent adapting to the outdoors.

Why did it take several days to get that out? The governor could have, should have, articulated the very basic theory they were working off before he rambled through his endless slides and lists of restrictions. That didn’t work. Nearly every news organization in California published some version of the guide to the new restrictions. Reporters spent hours explaining it.

Again, “Do not go out except to get things you need and take care of your body,” would have been a lot easier to understand. They need people to understand.

This entire program rests on voluntary compliance. While we may witness a few high-profile acts of enforcement, everyone, including police and sheriffs themselves, acknowledge it’s up to people and businesses individually to make the call. Right now, hundreds of gyms, restaurants and hair salons across San Diego are trying to decide whether to comply. They have to want to protect public health in many cases above their own economic survival. It’s a tall order with so little assistance accompanying the demand.

You can’t hand everyone a large deck of slides on how to comply and why. The public has to believe in the story and logic and be able to explain it to others.

They’re asking for a collective act of sacrifice unlike anything most of us have ever done, and we’re already exhausted. The place to start is to explain it in the simplest, most honest way.