The front of La Fonda restaurant in El Centro is shown on Sept. 14. As all restaurants in the Imperial Valley are, La Fonda is adjusting to re-opening to dine-in patrons in an all-outdoors format. La Fonda opened to dining on its patio and under this tent on Sept. 10. | CORISSA IBARRA PHOTO
IMPERIAL COUNTY — Dining out in Imperial County isn’t easy. Today, it’s an earned experience.
After six months of fast food, takeout or delivery, many people are ready to put up with the added hassles of eating outdoors in the heat and humidity, or whatever demands are being made of them, just to enjoy a meal out and help a local business come back to life.
As more businesses open up under the state’s new color-coded tier system and more restaurants come back online by allowing patrons to dine outdoors under tents and patios in socially-distanced settings, restaurants are finding ways to serve their faithful customers.
From Brownie’s Diner in Brawley to Denny’s locations in El Centro, more eateries are setting up temporary tents and tarps in their parking lots to accommodate customers who are ready to venture outdoors and get some sense of pre-COVID-19 normalcy.
La Fonda in El Centro, always a busy spot in the city, is one of those businesses that recently made the transition to open up outdoors.
“It’s funny, because this year we had plans to expand our restaurant, but we did not plan to expand outdoors,” La Fonda co-owner Antonio Camacho said.
“Everything is looking really good right now. I am going to buy two more tents to further expand, and we are really just appreciative of our local customers for coming out to support us during such times,” he added.
For the Rebollar family, owners of Brownie’s Dinner in Brawley and the Original Town Pump in Westmorland, it’s presented a new business opportunity with changes to the hours of operation of their businesses while combining the two.
“Since we started (outdoor dining) there has been about a 30 percent increase in sales,” said Gabriel Rebollar.
As temperatures begin to drop, he expects to further expand to meet the new demand.
In the past, his diner operated only for breakfast and some lunch, but with so much going on he decided to change hours to provide more service to his customers.
“Town Pump is closed, so I brought my menu here (Brownie’s) and with that I do two menus at one restaurant,” Rebollar said. “It has been really tough for us out here, we have now been closed for six months, having operated for over 50 years we have never been closed that long.”
He added that having been closed for so long has taught them the importance of abiding by regulations in an effort to remain open and not undergo yet another closure.
The official California state government website updated its guidelines Sept. 10 with new rules to allow for the accommodation of outdoor dining, when the whole system for businesses to operate under changed from stages of operation to the color-coded, four-tiered system.
Imperial County remains in the purple first tier: “widespread risk” category, the worst in the state. Any dining in at restaurants must be done outdoors only. Restaurant owners must abide by set guidelines including proper worker training for logging exposure risk, public screening, disinfectant protocols, and social-distancing measures. That includes a mandate to wear facial coverings in Imperial County.
While La Fonda, like many local eateries, survived and limped along on carryout dining and some on delivery, it was also time to try to open back up and increase sales.
“It’s hard to juggle operating a restaurant at the moment with all the uncertainty,” Camacho said.
He explained that during the takeout-only, La Fonda was only doing about 40 percent of its normal sales.
Yet “bills keep coming, the lease is due, and people need to get paid,” he said. “Sales are important to us, like any other restaurant owner.”
Camacho said La Fonda is considering outdoor entertainment options as well.
As COVID-19 conditions improve in Imperial County, the region gets ever closer to being able to move into the red tier: “substantial risk,” which for a restaurant owner would mean allowing indoor dining at 25-percent capacity. For now, that might be a ways off.
With the updated guidelines, Camacho, like many others, simply opted to move outdoors. With this, he is preparing to operate at a normal capacity, just in his parking lot and on his patio area. In doing so, he ensures to provide a safe and enjoyable space to his loyal customers.
County Public Health officials have been on hand throughout to guide restaurants in getting back open.
One thing that all owners are asking for is safety reassurance in an effort to get open and then stay open. To do so, everyone must abide by set rules like requiring facial coverings, said Jeff Lamoure, environmental health deputy director for the Imperial County Public Health Department.
“If an outbreak associated with COVID-19 or any food-borne disease were to occur at a restaurant, Environmental Health along with the Public health Department’s epidemiology staff would conduct a joint assessment of the facility and all individuals that were affected,” Lamoure said recently.
“Currently our testing positivity rate is at 4.63 percent, which is .67 percent below the statewide rate. Imperial County’s case rate per 100,000 has also continued to improve and is currently at 10.29 percent. The case rate must be at seven cases (per) 100,000, or less, for 14 consecutive days in order to advance to Tier 2 (red, which allow for indoor dining),” said Lamoure, who was quoting data from the time of the interview, which occurred late last week. “For any county to move into a different, lower-risk tier and thus be allowed to phase in some reopening features like limited dine-in restaurant service, that county would need to meet the below thresholds and remain at that level or below for at least three weeks,” Lamoure added. “Once each county has moved into a new color-coded tier, the clock resets. Meet the new data threshold, stay there for three weeks, move into a newer reopening tier and then repeat.”