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California HHS secretary admits bans on outdoor dining aren't based on evidence of danger

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It's a policy designed to keep people at home. But what are the costs?

Patrick Mouzawak/Bloomberg via Getty Images

As business anxiety mounts over renewed coronavirus lockdowns in several states, California's secretary of Health and Human Services made a stunning admission this week that will do little to assuage the concerns of those who say the restrictions go too far.

Delivering an update on COVID-19 in California Tuesday, state HHS Secretary Mark Ghaly admitted that policies banning restaurants from hosting outdoor dining are not based on evidence that suggests dining outdoors is unsafe. The policy, Reason reported, is actually about incentivizing people to stay home and is "not a comment on the relative safety of outdoor dining," Ghaly said.

"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," he explained.

Previously, Ghaly said, "We have worked hard with that industry to create safer ways for outdoor dining to happen."

The state encouraged restaurants to adopt precautions such as "keeping tables farther apart," or "ensuring masking happens as much as possible" to limit the risk of viral transmission.

"All of those factors make sectors like outdoor dining lower risk," Ghaly continued. "But right now, with the levels of transmission that we're seeing, we advise against anything that you can do in another way, in a lower-risk way, that avoids you either leaving your home or…leaving your home in a way that…cause[s] you to mix with others."

Last week, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a new regional stay-at-home order that separates the state into five regions and goes into effect in a given region when remaining hospital ICU capacity there drops below 15%. In addition to mandating that people stay home and limiting the size of private and public gatherings, the state ordered some "nonessential" businesses to close and mandated that restaurants only serve takeout or delivery. Indoor and outdoor dining is banned in the state, ostensibly to reduce the spread of coronavirus.

But lockdown policies have real consequences for business owners and their employees who are told by the state they are not allowed to provide their services. A recent survey conducted by the National Restaurant Association found that since the COVID-19 pandemic began, one in six restaurants nationwide has been forced to close permanently.

Unemployment, obviously, has skyrocketed since the pandemic began. Some 1.3 million Americans will owe a collective $7.2 billion in unpaid rent by the end of this year. Millions of Americans face economic hardship this season, and business owners in California and other states imposing lockdowns are speaking out because it's not fair.

One woman who owns a restaurant in Los Angeles posted a video that went viral in early December in which she tearfully expressed her outrage that the state told her she could not serve customers outdoors but local officials permitted a TV production to ignore the restrictions and serve outdoor catering. Another California business owner recently complained to Fox News that California's restrictions have a "trickle-down effect" — if some businesses are forced to close because the state says they cannot serve customers, other service providers who rely on those businesses as clients also suffer and may be forced close too.

Some fed-up restauranteurs have begun challenging the state in court, with initial success. A judge on Tuesday ruled that Los Angeles County had acted "arbitrarily" in imposing a ban on outdoor dining without conducting a proper "risk-benefit" analysis beforehand. However, these local restrictions were superseded by Newsom's statewide order, which has not yet been successfully challenged in court.

Elsewhere in the country there are those who have chosen to outright defy government mandates that order them to close. The owners of Atilis Gym in Bellmawr, New Jersey, have kept their facility open despite the government fining them $15,497.76 for every day they do so. Gym co-owner Frank Trumbetti argues that he shouldn't have to close his business if he adopts safety protocols that enforce proper social distancing to keep his customers safe. He says that after 83,000 visits to his facility, not one case of COVID-19 has been traced back to Atilis Gym. His complaint is that the government is not providing sufficient evidence to show why ordering businesses to close will be effective at reducing the spread of the virus.

It's a complaint echoed by Barstool Sports president Dave Portnoy who blasted New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo for ordering New York City restaurants to cease indoor dining in a viral video posted Friday.

"In this country, politicians are taking away to the right to earn a living. It's that simple and it's insanity," Portnoy asserted.

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