As California pulls the ’emergency brake’ due to COVID-19, Orange County businesses are stuck in neutral

As cases surge in the state, nearly 94% of all Californians now live in the most restrictive tier of the state’s reopening road map after Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Monday that nearly 30 counties would be returning to the purple — indicating “widespread” transmission — tier effective immediately.

That includes Orange County, which remained in the second-most tier since Sept. 8. County health officials said that in the span of two days that the seven-day average of new cases per 100,000 residents skyrocketed from what was 5.6 — still within the thresholds for the second tier — to 10.8, which removes the county from the tier.

The state recently issued a mandate requiring residents to wear masks when they’re outside of their homes with few exceptions. Only those younger than 2; have a disability or medical/mental health condition that prevents them from wearing a face covering; are hearing impaired, or are communicating with someone who is are exempt.

For businesses across Orange County, the transition back into the purple tier will mean that capacities will be reduced to 25% and, for restaurants, it means a return to outdoor dining only.

Customers sit in an outdoor dining area by Dory Deli near the Newport Beach Pier on Tuesday.

Customers sit in an outdoor dining area by Dory Deli near the Newport Beach Pier on Tuesday.

(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Amelia Shales is just thankful that the doors to AMĒNAH — a woman’s clothing and lifestyle boutique on South Coast Highway in Laguna Beach that Shales owns with Hannah Levy — will stay open.

Shales said the store initially maintained a maximum of about 10 shoppers, though that number was reduced to just six on Tuesday after the state announced the shift back into the purple tier. She said she was thankful to Laguna Beach, its chamber of commerce and the Promenade on Forest, which she said has helped the store get traffic.

“For us, this time of the year, having the doors open and the ability to have one or two people come in at a time is really crucial for us,” Shales said, adding that the store is typically busier during a normal summer. “Even operating at 25% capacity, being able to keep our doors open is crucial for us during this season.”

She said it’s not ideal to have to lower the capacity, but that she understood it was for the safety of the greater community and that it was important to AMĒNAH to create somewhere safe to shop. Shales said the store has an online shop, but she felt the boutique took a hit to sales when it had to close its brick and mortar front early on.

“Being able to have our door open even to a smaller percentage of people is really critical to us, especially when the holidays are coming up,” Shales said. “The winter is much slower than summer.”

The oncoming winter is not unnoticed by restaurants that now need to pivot back to outdoor dining and continued patronage through takeout and delivery orders. Cary Redfern, owner of Lumberyard Restaurant and Slice Pizza in Laguna Beach, said he saw the closure of indoor dining before it officially came on Monday.

“At this point, I think most of us in the restaurant business have learned to cope. We take the hits and we keep on going,” Redfern said. “There’s nothing we can do about it other than practice the proper protocols and procedures, which is what we have been doing.”

Customers wearing face masks walk out of the PJ's Surfrider sportswear store near the Newport Beach Pier on Tuesday.

Customers wearing face masks walk out of the PJ’s Surfrider sportswear store near the Newport Beach Pier on Tuesday.

(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Redfern said he heard about private gatherings and restaurants that didn’t abide by state requirements, but that he didn’t blame any one person or politician in particular. He said the reality was that his employees were going to get less hours because he couldn’t be open inside and outside like he had been before.

“I’m going to hang on to my employees and provide as much work as I can and we’ll get through it,” Redfern said.

Winter is the newest obstacle for him, he said. Both his restaurants will have heaters and Redfern said they’d be adding candles to tables in addition to urging patrons to bundle up, but that he was sympathetic to other businesses out on the East Coast and the Midwest, where it would be untenable due to the weather.

This is also a concern for Lido Bottle Works in Newport Beach.

Brett Karas, a co-owner and general manager for the restaurant, said that he’s confident because he knows what to expect now, but that it was still a letdown to lose space that they’d only just gotten.

“With the weather changing, it’s going to obviously be a bigger challenge that everyone’s going to have to face,” Karas said. “It’s a bit of uncertainty and anxiety if you will as we sort of navigate this new area of dining. I think the people of Orange County have grown to like dining outside, but it’s because it’s the weather. It’s going to be challenging now that it’s going to be colder.”

He added that because of the size of Lido Bottle Works that it was easier for him to adapt, but said that if it was a larger restaurant with more staff that he’d feel more anxious and apprehensive about the shift in the state’s reopening guidelines.

“We’re in no power to make the calls, so we’re just kind of at bay here and rolling with the punches,” Karas said. “You can’t get really worked up too much over it because it’s something we’ve already seen before.”

A server sanitizes a table and stools before seating customers at Newport Beach Hotel's outdoor dining area on Tuesday.

A server sanitizes a table and stools before seating customers at Newport Beach Hotel’s outdoor dining area on Tuesday.

(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

But for Susie Smith’s Makin Waves Salon in Huntington Beach, the most frustrating part of the return to the purple tier was that her customers didn’t know if salons were open or closed.

Smith said the confusion meant that some of her customers wouldn’t come in because they weren’t sure if the salon was open and that she’d received multiple inquiries about it. She said the situation was unnerving not knowing day to day if “[her] livelihood will be taken away from [her] because of Newsom’s color charts.”

Smith added that she felt hair salons were one of the safest places for patrons to visit because of sanitation and safety guidelines that they’re required to follow normally.

“My salon has been operating at 50% capacity during the time we have been able to be open after a five-and-a-half-month mandatory closure. Now in this purple tier, we’re allowed to work at 25% capacity,” Smith added.

“When you start doing the math of the reduced or no income this entire year, it’s nearly impossible to pay bills and keep a roof over your head,” she said. “The financial stress is causing more health problems for me personally than it would be for me to actually catch the virus.”

Larger shopping complexes such as Fashion Island in Newport Beach and South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa will also be required to fall into state mandates. Fashion Island officials said Tuesday that it would still be offering curbside pickups and shop by appointments.

As for Black Friday, the shopping center said that stores would still be offering promotions with “additional surprises” throughout the day. The details were not released as of Tuesday evening.

Deals for Black Friday at South Coast Plaza have already begun at some stores with others to begin next week.

“We had already closed large sections of parking spaces prior to the state’s announcement and have since closed additional parking to comply with the capacity limit guidelines set by state,” South Coast Plaza spokeswoman Debra Gunn Downing said. “Now through the holiday season, we encourage our shoppers to plan their visits during off-peak days and times including weekdays just after our doors open and the hours just before we close.”

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