The Challenge of Being a Gigantic Restaurant When Coronavirus Guidelines Are Telling People to Avoid Crowds

On March 11, the California Department of Public Health issued new guidelines surrounding novel coronavirus, warning that people (particularly those with existing illnesses, the elderly, and the pregnant) should try to avoid events with more than 250 attendees, and that “smaller gatherings held in venues that do not allow social distancing of six feet per person should be postponed or canceled.” So far in Los Angeles County, at least one person has died due to COVID-19, and 28 more have been confirmed as infected.

So what does this new guideline — it’s not a mandate yet, as in Washington state — mean for LA’s biggest and most successful restaurants, which can hold well north of 150 people at a time, and can turn over more than 1,000 people in a single day? Just today, New York state mandated that all public venues, including restaurants and bars, that can seat up to 500 people, must reduce capacity by half.

Compared to more dense cities like, say, New York or San Francisco, many of Los Angeles’s restaurant spaces are relatively large in their physical footprint — and that’s not even counting the 600-seat behemoth inside the Burbank IKEA. Sugar Factory restaurant, which opened only last week at the Westfield Century City mall, boasts over 400 seats, and just yesterday the shopping mall email blasted its customers with guidance on how they’re ramping up cleaning and encouraging sick shoppers to stay home. Sugar Factory is one of a handful of restaurants that can accommodate hundreds at that one mall alone, which also houses a Javier’s Mexican restaurant, an upscale two-story steakhouse, and the three-story Eataly, a multi-faceted dining area and grocery store. Add to that Westfield Century City’s own food court, which houses eleven stalls and dozens of dining tables.

By and large, these restaurant sizes are unique to Los Angeles, and now they could begin to face distinct challenges specifically owing to their capacity. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends staying away from crowds, and to avoid coming into contact with high-touch surfaces in public places. Other health experts recommend dining at off-peak hours, sitting at least six feet away from other diners whenever possible, and not sharing food on the table.

LA County Health Department does not have specific guidance for larger restaurants and food halls at the moment, but has asked the public to check its website for updates, and has issued instructions for restaurants to post signs asking sick individuals to remain home. In addition, the health department is telling restaurants to have staff keep a six-foot distance between themselves and customers who appear to be ill, and to provide additional napkins or tissues when customers cough or sneeze.

“We’ve been having a lot of discussions about it,” says Walter Manzke of Republique when asked about the increased use of “social distancing” as a containment tactic against the spread of the novel coronavirus; maintaining social distance helps to slow the spread of COVID-19, “flattening the curve” and slowing down the speed of an outbreak. “The truth is that we have no control [over the spread],” Manzke says. “It could hopefully ride itself out, and over time it could pass.”

Koreatown Plaza food court, Los Angeles
Koreatown Plaza food court, Los Angeles
Wonho Frank Lee

Manzke says that he and his partner and wife Margarita Manzke have removed some communal seating to reduce the overall number of diners and to create more distance between them, even though it limits the restaurant’s money-making capacity. Already, there has seen a slight but noticeable dip in business, particularly during dinner service.

Republique is also retraining staff on how to manage their interactions with people who come into the restaurant, even regulars. “It’s a tough adjustment, because we preach to our staff to know and say hello to everyone, and now we’re retraining them to not shake hands and to keep some distance.” Manzke says that it’s elbow bumps from here on out, and that staff has also ramped up cleaning and hand-washing across the front and back of house.

The same hospitality questions arise for Birdie G’s, says Josh Loeb of Rustic Canyon restaurant group, which opened the 5,000-square-foot restaurant in Santa Monica last summer that can hold around 200 people at once. “If we have fewer diners at Birdie G’s and our other spots, that’s an opportunity to give an even more thoughtful experience.” He adds that for himself and partner and wife Zoe Nathan, dining out won’t stop. “We know for us personally, we take a lot of comfort from eating really nourishing food in a warm restaurant environment.”

Other operators behind large and busy Los Angeles restaurants like Majordomo, Bestia, and Guelaguetza declined to be interviewed regarding novel coronavirus, while a rep for national chain California Pizza Kitchen said only that they are increasing sanitation efforts and the usage of gloves inside each restaurant, and continuing to keep sick workers at home — which comes with its own issues of financial insecurity for many in the hospitality industry.

A collection of wooden tables inside of a large warehouse-y restaurant, with the open kitchen at the right.
Many tables at Birdie G’s
Wonho Frank Lee

Loeb knows that more could be coming down the line, and says that management across all of his restaurants have been in frequent contact with the Department of Health. “We know that we’re probably still in the early stages of seeing the impact of this virus and its spread,” he tells Eater, “but we feel strongly the best reaction is to stay calm and do whatever we can to make our restaurants as safe as possible. We want them to be a truly joyous respite from the fears in the news, and a place for those who come in to enjoy themselves and get away for a bit.”

Story has been updated to reflect New York state’s mandated 50% reduction of venues smaller than a capacity of 500.

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