Omicron Poses Renewed Challenges for Local Business Owners

Businesses like Alissa’s Ocean View Bar and Grill in Montrose had to temporarily close when some of the staff had been exposed to COVID-19. The restaurant has since reopened.
Photo by Mary O’KEEFE


By Justin HAGAR

When Jim Collins, owner of Town Kitchen & Grill in Montrose, told his team of cooks, waiters, bussers and bartenders they would be closed on New Year’s Eve, they were shocked. But, according to Collins, he had no choice; after a high percentage of people on his team had been potentially exposed to COVID-19, he said the best way to get the situation under control was to close the restaurant and give everyone a chance to ensure the health of themselves, their families and their customers.

Unfortunately, Town is not the only local business being forced into temporary closures due to omicron. Alissa’s Ocean View Bar and Grill in Montrose, Color me Mine in Pasadena and Roguelike Tavern in Burbank all reported temporary closures due to the current omicron surge and the possibility that staff may have been exposed.

Despite extensive precautions to protect customers and staff, such as providing masks and offering outdoor dining options, Alissa Hwang, owner of Alissa’s Ocean View Bar and Grill, explained that exposure was more likely with restaurant workers, who are repeatedly around people who are not wearing masks. And, for restaurants like Town located in the Montrose Shopping Park, some precautions have become more difficult.

The Montrose Shopping Park Assn. has been waiting for more than three months for the installation of new outdoor dining spaces.

Collins said, “The City of Glendale promised that outdoor dining would be reopened in November. It’s the end of January and we still have no timeline for when outdoor dining will reopen.”

Gigi Garcia, vice president of the Montrose Shopping Park Assn., said that, despite the uncertainty around outdoor dining, “The MSPA is such a great outdoor shopping space, and we hope that customers will continue to support our local small businesses.”

She further elaborated, “Supporting local businesses is the best way to ensure that local money stays in the local community, much of which then gets used to support local community organizations and activities.”

Beyond the immediate revenue loss, Hwang also worried that repeated closures will lead customers to assume the worst.

“How many times can we be closed down before people start to assume that we’re closed,” she said. “It’s very stressful. There aren’t any more government programs to help keep payroll running during these closures, but every member of my team still has rent to pay.”

Federal funding for programs like the Paycheck Protection Program expired at the end of August and, while staff of temporarily closed businesses can qualify for unemployment, the mandatory one-week waiting period means that they will lose at least one-week of pay and potentially wait months for their application to be processed and for money to flow in.

Even when businesses can be open, pandemic fatigue and the politics of the pandemic have led to some difficult interactions with customers. While both owners noted that the vast majority of their customers have been very supportive, they have each had incidents of threatening and rude behavior, refusal to comply with local laws and mandates and, in the case of Ocean View, one customer who screamed at staff.

Collins said that he hopes his customers will remember, “The rules we’re following are not rules that we created … but please, stay home if you’re sick. There is an element of respect in staying home.”

Hwang echoed that sentiment and said that, despite being in unincorporated LA County just outside of the City of Glendale limits, the Glendale Police Dept. had been very helpful in dealing with the rare threatening customers; however, she called on the LA County Sheriff’s Dept. to stop “playing politics and enforce the law,” even if they don’t like it or agree with it.

“Instead of being a place to relax and enjoy a meal or have a glass of wine, the burden of enforcing government mandates is put upon restaurant and business owners,” she said. “I have 16- and 17-year-old employees who are supposed to tell a grown adult to comply or leave without any backup or support from LA County Sheriffs Dept. and, if the staff member backs down, [the business faces] a $5,000 fine from the health department when we’re already struggling to make payroll.”

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva publicly declared his refusal to enforce COVID-19 regulations, such as mask mandates, in a statement in July.

“Forcing the vaccinated and those who already contracted COVID-19 to wear masks indoors is not backed by science,” he said.

Despite the challenges, both business owners expressed gratitude to their customers.

“The community has been amazingly supportive at adapting to the changes in the way we’ve had to run the restaurant,” said Collins. “Thank you.”