As COVID Cases Rise, L.A. Bars and Restaurants Are Once Again Scrambling to Adapt

What should have been a summertime boom has given way to tough decisions and widespread uncertainty in the food and beverage world
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Lorena Tomb has a problem. It might seem like the founder and CEO of a commercial real estate firm would be up to her ears in vacant properties to show prospective clients in the wake of the long COVID-19 pandemic shutdown, but the reality of the past few months has been surprisingly different.

“Our concern before the mask mandate returned was a lack of inventory,” Tomb says, explaining that the combination of the eviction moratorium (extended in California through September) and the Restaurant Revitalization Fund has kept owners in their leases and operating at “no cost of overhead for a very long time.” For those lucky enough to find themselves in this situation, the RRF money can only be used on the business for which you received the grant, but in some cases that’s freed up other cash for things like expansion.

“So, a lot of existing, out-of-market operators are looking from other places,” Tomb continues. “Whether it’s from larger L.A. County coming into the city, or whether it’s people from New York, Washington, San Francisco, or other markets looking for opportunities in L.A.”

Meanwhile, many local bar and restaurant operators were left out of that cash bonanza. “I have some friends in New York who got it, and it changed the game for them,” says one bar owner in L.A., who asked to remain anonymous. For him and others, the RRF ran dry before they received a cent. And now that the spread of the virulent Delta variant has cast a pall over what might have been a big summertime boom for bars and restaurants, business owners are scrambling to navigate new waters yet again—and hoping to stay afloat.

“Business has been slower for us in L.A. since the Delta variant,” the bar owner continued, projecting his numbers to be “going back down in L.A. for awhile until we get ahold of this shit again.” He feared new restrictions (“a disaster for everyone”) would be on the way if things get too crazy, but noted that his business model simply couldn’t sustain a new lockdown: “We’re in the congregation business!”

Rachel Thomas, owner and operator of Bar Franca in downtown, was forced to shutter her space in March 2020, when the city’s mandatory Safer at Home order went into place. In early July of this year, as the vaccine rolled out and cases plunged, Thomas felt confident enough to reopen her space.

“I was really trying to wait it out until I could open the bar back up the way I wanted to: people relaxed, people confident, most of us vaccinated,” Thomas explains. Bar Franca reopened with their signature event, Divorce Night, the queer women’s night Thomas had started hosting pre-pandemic, “and we were slammed—I bar backed for seven hours.”

 

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A post shared by Bar Franca (@barfrancadtla)

It was a nice welcome back, but new case counts were already rising and the mask mandate returned just weeks later.

“I had regulars asking what are we going to do, are you going to check vaccinations at the door,” Thomas continues. “And it’s kind of like, you’re screwed if you do, screwed if you don’t.”

In an effort to make her staff and regulars feel safe, and to incentivize people to get vaccines, Bar Franca began checking vaccinations at the door on July 22. “And, to be frank,” she says, “we’ve been dead.”

But Bar Franca is not alone in requiring proof of vaccination for entry. A growing list of bars and restaurants have begun implementing the practice, too.

“It’s unfortunate that I don’t get to impede on anyone’s liberties and tell them to get a vaccine, but they get to impede on my right to operate a business.” — Rachel Thomas, Bar Franca

On July 30, Osteria La Buca announced via their Instagram page that they would begin the practice starting August 2. “We’re a restaurant doing what we think is right,” a representative of the restaurant tells Los Angeles. But their announcement was instantly met with a mix of reactions. “Too many people with differing opinions have flooded our Instagram and it’s just gotten out of hand,” they continue. “Our point was to take care of our staff, not get involved in a political/religious conversation. Everyone is entitled to their choices and opinions.”

“I think the mood is catching up to what has been the reality,” says Xandre Borghetti of Nossa in Los Feliz. Borghetti has had to let go of some staff and close the indoor dining space at his restaurant, hurting what were already slumping sales. He predicts that if things continue this way for another month or longer, restaurants will need renewed government relief.

“I’m having trouble imagining a world where Delta subsides and then fall and winter are really great,” Borghetti says. “Even if it gets better here, it will likely be worse in the Midwest and East Coast when it gets colder. Just seems like a chain reaction that continues for a while.”

 

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Still, added government relief would likely only be a stop-gap measure for businesses until COVID is permanently under control—a scenario that requires wider vaccination coverage.

“It’s unfortunate that I don’t get to impede on anyone’s liberties and tell them to get a vaccine, but they get to impede on my right to operate a business,” Thomas concludes.

On a recent Thursday, Bar Franca turned away a couple dozen people for lack of vaccines or lack of proof. “That’s a lot of people for a bar my size,” she notes, adding that a bar in Echo Park operated by a friend of hers turned away about 100 people on a recent Friday. “It’s just unfortunate that small businesses have to take the initiative on [incentivizing vaccines] and not the government.”


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