Orange County Restaurants, Movie Theaters Welcome Customers Back Indoors Under New Red Tier Rules

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Main News Photo

(Orange County Register)

Some restaurants, gyms, and movie theaters across Orange County shot out of the gates Sunday, March 14 as other owners and managers prepared to bring back and retrain staff, replenish supplies and get the word out to customers that they are welcome indoors once again.

State public health officials announced Friday that California had met a 2 million vaccination goal in disproportionately impacted areas, meaning Orange County and some others – Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties included – with improving pandemic metrics would shift Sunday from the strictest purple tier of the state’s four-tier monitoring system to the more relaxed red tier.

Dance and yoga studios, aquariums, museums, and zoos are also cleared to let visitors back indoors at 25% capacity under the red tier, while malls can raise indoor capacities from one-quarter to half.

Wineries, breweries, and distilleries where food isn’t served can reopen outdoors in all counties this weekend, regardless of tier status, but with some restrictions: reservations are required, customers have a 90-minute time limit and service must end by 8 p.m.

Din Tai Fung at South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa buzzed with lunchtime patrons Sunday as the popular dumpling restaurant spaced out tables in parts of its dining room. It also continued to seat diners in an outdoor patio and takeout orders flowed out of the kitchen.

Kaye Armosilla of Fullerton waited for an indoor reservation Sunday afternoon. Armosilla said she works in health care and has been vaccinated, “so I feel a little safer (eating inside).”

Elsewhere in the county, diners snapped up afternoon reservations at restaurants that were set for indoor service Sunday.

“We’re excited and grateful that we are allowed to open up the 25% and we’re praying that we can get to 50% real quick and then full blast after that,” said Peter Serantoni, the owner of Cha Cha’s Latin Kitchen restaurants in Brea and Irvine.

“There’s supposed to be a vaccine for every adult by May,” Serantoni said. “So we’re hoping we can have a big celebration with a back-to-normal Cinco (de Mayo). That would be fantastic because we go all-out on Cinco de Mayo with a lot of specials, Folklorico dancing, and live mariachis – it’s a big to-do for us.”

But while some restaurants enthusiastically opened their doors on the first day of red tier status, others tempered their optimism that being able to seat customers indoors will turn everything around.

Chairs remained stacked on tables at El Mesquitito Grill, a small shop that serves up tacos, burritos, and other Mexican fare in Costa Mesa.

Business has slumped in 2021 for manager Hector Lopez, who took over operations from a family member in November.

The pandemic’s sluggish economy and less government assistance for small businesses treading water later in the pandemic has been tougher on the bottom line more than the lack of indoor dining, Lopez said.

Lopez said he heard Saturday night that restaurants could let customers dine-on site starting Sunday, but he wasn’t in a rush to set up his tables and chairs again.

“This location is mostly to-go,” he said. “Hopefully (now) that we’re going to reopen, it’ll get better and better.”

Movie theaters in red tier counties could open indoor auditoriums Sunday at 25% capacity with six-foot gaps between masked groups. Two Century theaters, including the Bella Terra location in Huntington Beach, were selling reserved seating for showings of “Boogie,” “The Marksman” and “Tom & Jerry” starting Sunday afternoon, with time slots into the evening.

Several AMC theaters are slated to reopen over the coming week – tickets are available at The Outlets at Orange for movies starting Monday and for other locations in Anaheim, Fullerton, and Tustin starting Friday.

One Starlight Cinemas location in Garden Grove has opened sales for showtimes starting Friday. Two other locations in Anaheim and Costa Mesa on Sunday were not yet selling tickets for the week ahead.

It wasn’t clear when Regal Cinemas, with locations throughout Orange County, would reopen its doors.

The theater giant had announced widespread closures in early October – more than a month before indoors theaters in Orange County were forced to shutter once again amid a coronavirus resurgence – due to low ticket sales and postponed release dates for big-budget films.

In late February, Regal tweeted, in part: “Big movies are made for the big screen and once LA opens, we are confident in the studios holding their release dates for new movies, allowing us to reopen our theaters.”

Since August, the state has charted crucial coronavirus metrics in each country – case rates and shares of swab and spit tests returning positive – to determine what businesses and public places can reopen in counties and at what capacity.

Orange County previously enjoyed two months in the red tier from September to November during a relative lull between summer and winter pandemic peaks, meaning some coronavirus-curbing rules were relaxed.

Last week, all three of Orange County’s metrics dipped into red tier territory for the first time since fall, marking the halfway point in a qualifying period of two weeks to officially move to the easier-going red tier, per state tracking system guidelines.

But on March 10, Gov. Gavin Newsom said that if the state hit its 2 million dose target for vaccine-strapped communities, the time frame for switching tiers would be shortened, allowing Orange County, with its case rate this week of 6 cases per day per 100,000 people, into the red tier a few days ahead of schedule.

Countywide testing positivity, at 3.2%, also approached lows seen during the fall slowdown. The health equity metric – which state officials began tracking in October to track test positivity in low-income areas where health care access is limited – has never been lower at 4.1%.

By Friday, nearly 11.2 million COVID-19 vaccine doses had been administered statewide, and just under 2.02 million to residents of the 400 ZIP codes the state had targeted for its goal. They are the neighborhoods in the bottom fourth of the California Healthy Places Index, which aggregates economic, environmental and other factors, to give neighborhoods an overall public health score.

Newsom has set another marker: Once the state surpasses 4 million doses administered in the target ZIP codes – four of which are in Santa Ana, Anaheim and Garden Grove – the even less restrictive orange tier will be easier to reach with a case rate range of 2 to 5.9 cases per 100,000 residents.

“But we have quite a bit of work ahead to get from 2 million to 4 million doses,” California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly said during a news conference Friday.

Orange County leaders, including Dr. Clayton Chau, OC Health Care Agencydirector and county health officer, are hoping the turning pandemic tide leads to a quick succession though less-restrictive tiers, as state guidelines allow.

Chau said this week that unless promising metric trends bottom out or reverse, Orange County could qualify for the next-best orange tier – and another round of softening rules – by mid-April.

Two of three metrics – countywide and health equity testing positivity – already have dropped to orange tier levels.

Lucy Dunn, chief executive of the Orange County Business Council, said this week there is a pent-up demand for services, particularly for one of Orange County’s most important sectors: hospitality.

“It’s where people want to go and as vaccines become more prevalent and people feel a little bit more safe, even with all the health protocols, the pent-up demand for hospitality is going to be huge,” Dunn said. “We’re all chomping at the bit to get out.”

he is optimistic the tightest pandemic restrictions are in the county’s rearview mirror for good.

“I don’t see us going back to the purple tier, as long as we move forward with vaccines, because every one of those vaccines are 100% effective against hospitalization and death,” said Dunn, who also serves on the county’s advisory vaccine task force. “That’s been the benchmark for shutting down the economy, is overwhelming a hospital system.”

The three essential parts needed to get the local economic engine running again in the short term, Dunn said, are reopening more business sectors in lower tiers, getting kids physically back in school (and their parents’ attention back on work), and keeping up masking and other coronavirus precautions until vaccines reach enough arms.


Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG: Cha Cha’s Latin Kitchen in Irvine on Sunday, March 14, 2021, after California announced the return of reduced capacity indoor dining and relax restrictions on breweries, wineries, and distilleries. 

Category: COVID-19, orange county