Patrons still dine at tables outside Main Street restaurants

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A Seal Beach Police officer advises a restaurant’s owners that they might be in violation of the county health order. The owners voluntarily elected to comply, according to police. Staff photo

Editor’s note: This article has been edited to correct the transposition of the words “education” and “enforcement” in the fifth paragraph.

 

Forget “speakeasies.”

The county health order prohibits dining inside and outside restaurants, according to Lt. Nick Nicholas, public information officer for the Seal Beach Police Department.

Yet a casual observer would have seen multiple violations on Main Street last weekend.

As widely reported since The regional stay-at-home order issued by the California Public Health Office last month prohibits dining inside and outside restaurants.

The city has been taking an enforcement by education approach to the rules since March of last year.

This weekend, patrons sat on tables (and relocated benches) outside local restaurants. A Sun reporter walked up one side of Main Street on Saturday and down the other side Sunday, photographing people eating outside restaurants. The tented dining area in the parking lot of The Hangout was roped off, but two tables outside the tented area were available for use. Multiple tables in the parking lot outside Hennessey’s Grill  were used on Saturday and Sunday. (The tables were stacked on Monday and a car was seen parked in the fenced off area.)

Someone had moved two benches (one of them a memorial bench) into the tented parklet area shared by Crema Cafe and 320 Main. Those benches were frequently in use.

In all, the Sun observed people eating at tables outside at least six restaurants on Saturday, Jan. 16, and at least three on Sunday.

There were no tables outside Nick’s Deli. Inside, the deli has set up a roped off area for patrons to line up (if necessary) to pick up their food.

On Saturday, Seal Beach Police received a complaint. An officer responded to Avilia’s El Ranchito Restaurant on Main Street.

Patrons were dining on the patio at the time. Sun staff photographed an officer in the restaurant, speaking to an individual who was apparently in charge.

According to Lt. Nicholas, the officer learned that customers had ordered food to go and then sat at the tables in the patio. Nicholas said the officer took no action to enforce pandemic restrictions, but advised the owners that they might be in violation of the health order.

The owners voluntarily elected to comply, according to Nicholas.

Lt. Nicholas said the Police Department’s authority to enforce the rules on private property comes from the local emergency order approved in March 2020 to take enforcement action if it is necessary.

Nicholas confirmed that the Orange County Health order prohibits dining inside and at outside seating.

Mayor/District One City Councilman Joe Kalmick also confirmed that the regional stay-at-home order that was issued in December made it clear that food businesses are to provide take-out-only.

Kalmick also said restaurants have been notified more than once about the rules.

“Part of it is human nature, part of it is lack of concrete enforcement and part of it is desperation,” Kalmick said, apparently referring to the desperation of restaurant owners trying to survive.

“I think that enforcement by education rises and falls with the weather and desperation,” Kalmick said.

He pointed out that other restaurants are complying with the rules. Walt’s Wharf, for example, has shut down completely.

Confusion (or debate) over the existence, need, and local enforcement over dining restrictions continues.

For example, dining at outdoor restaurant tables is prohibited yet dining on public benches is permitted. “The current State order temporarily halts restaurant outdoor dining,” wrote Community Development Director Les Johnson in a Jan. 11 email. “Use of a bench on a public sidewalk is not in conflict with the State order but does require compliance with all applicable CDC guidelines.”

Meanwhile, on the Support Seal Beach Restaurants Facebook page, Seal Beach residents wondered why some restaurants were “allowed” to break the rules and others were not. Some posts speculated that the city was “turning a blind eye.”

However, Mayor/District One City Councilman Joe Kalmick said city staff was not just turning a blind eye.

As previously reported, the city has been taking an education-by-enforcement approach.

During a Monday, Jan. 18 phone interview, Kalmick told the Sun that restaurants were instructed to take outdoor tables out of service. “They were told,” he said.

According to Kalmick, city staff is torn over the potential consequences of enforcement. He said staff are trying to get restaurants to comply without shutting them down.

He said he didn’t want to inconvenience restaurants any more than they already have been. “It has to reach a point when education by enforcement doesn’t cut it any more,” Kalmick said.

However, Kalmick also said Seal Beach doesn’t have enough time or people to go up and down Main Street all the time.

Kalmick pointed out that the Orange County Sheriff has publicly said he would not enforce pandemic restrictions.

Then there is the potential downside of enforcement. “It’s not as easy as it might sound to go up and say, ‘OK, we’re pulling your permit,’” Kalmick said. He said then a restaurant goes out of business.

Kalmick said he doesn’t want to close Main Street.

“I know it’s frustrating for restaurants that are complying,” Kalmick said. According to Kalmick, the director of the Community Development Department has written letters to businesses in violation of the rules. According to City Manager Jill Ingram, the city has sent emails to the busiensses. “Emails have been sent and a small number (less than 10) of notices of violation have been issued to date,” Ingram wrote in a Jan. 18 email.

According Kalmick said that some restaurants comply until they don’t.

“We have so many other things for the police to do,” he said.

He also said that none of the cities he’s communicated with have had complete success with writing citations.