After spending thousands of dollars on a tented, outdoor dining space for customers at her nearly year-old vegan restaurant in North Park, owner Alondra Ruiz made a risky decision. She would stay open in defiance of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s latest stay-at-home order barring indoor and outdoor dining.
“I hope this inspires small businesses to stand up,” Ruiz said, addressing her followers on an Instagram post that drew hundreds of comments, many of them supportive. “Fight for your business that you invested so much time and energy and money into it, to stay open and fight for your rights, stand up for your family, for your employees, your community.”
The Village San Diego, on El Cajon Boulevard, is among a small minority of local businesses across the county who have decided to ignore a recently imposed regional order requiring some businesses to shut down completely while allowing others, like restaurants, to continue operating, but only for takeout and delivery service.
While several commercial venues, including some gyms and dining and drinking establishments, are openly defying the newly imposed requirements, most owners on Wednesday declined to talk about their decision. Ruiz, though, gladly welcomed the opportunity to explain her thinking.
“It’s our peaceful way to protest,” said Ruiz, standing outside her eatery as a few customers sat outside at amply spaced tables under a series of illuminated white tents. “A lot of my customers wanted me to stay open and that’s what inspired me. All the servers are wearing masks, I don’t think we are doing anything wrong.”
The governor’s order, though, is clear. In those regions of the state where the capacity of intensive care unit beds has dropped below 15 percent, both indoor and outdoor dining is prohibited, gyms can operate outdoors only, and nail and hair salons, bars, wineries, breweries and family entertainment centers must close down, along with aquariums, zoos and museums.
“Of course we worry about what the county might do to us, but this has been very unfair to small businesses, and if we all stand up, there must be another solution,” said Ruiz, who recently spent $3,000 to replace her large tent structure, which was badly damaged in a recent windstorm. “I can’t just let go of my staff right before the holidays. I’m just staying open to pay my employees. I asked them if they want to work, and they said they want to work.”
Alpine residents Kris and Brandon Bradley, who had just finished a lunch of ramen and chile relleno, vegan-style, said they were happy to support businesses like The Village, which is staying open, even in violation of county and state orders.
“First of all, there is no proof or statistics that outside dining is increasing the COVID risk,” Brandon Bradley said. “Think about all the people who’ve gone out of business. Anybody who is staying open like this we’re going to support them.”
Added Kris Bradley, “And they’re adhering to all the safety standards and are very clean and using disposable cutlery. I’m not afraid of it being a hazard to myself.”
The Village, like others not complying with the state mandate, faces the possibility of receiving a cease-and-desist order from the county, which has issued roughly 140 such orders since the region entered the most restrictive purple tier of the state’s reopening system in early November. About 12 percent of those who received the orders, a county representative said Tuesday, have refused to comply and have now had their information forwarded to the district attorney’s office for possible citations, which can carry a possible fine of $1,000.
San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott’s office has only received a few referrals so far. Spokeswoman Hilary Nemchik noted Wednesday that, “considering these cases can potentially take months to resolve in court, we’ll prioritize our actions based on the evidence and our ability to prove a case to the court.”
Over the last week, the county has received 900 calls from the public related to the pandemic, ranging from complaints about gatherings and failure to wear masks to businesses not following current guidelines, said county spokesman Mike Workman.
County Supervisor Jim Desmond, who for months has been advocating on behalf of hard-hit businesses, said Wednesday he understands the sentiment that is driving some business owners to stay open amid a shut-down order.
“I feel sorry for these businesses who feel they have no choice,” he said. “For a lot of them, it’s either stay open or close down for good. They paid for all these measures like partitions, outside tables and heaters and they feel frustrated that even when they’re doing the right thing, they have to be shut down.
“I do ask of them, though, if they choose to stay open, realize there may be consequences but be open safely, abide by the health and safety guidelines, wear gloves, masks, use partitions. Be the gold standard for following these protocols.”
In Escondido, the owner of the Tony Pepperoni Pizzeria on Grand Avenue is one of those opting to stay open. At 3:30 p.m. Wednesday, about a dozen customers were being served inside and two dined outdoors.
“Livelihoods are at stake; my employees depend on me,” said Joe Locricchio , who also owns three other pizza parlors. “I’m not trying to be a rebel. Coronavirus is real but people need to go out. I cannot afford it.”
Locricchio said his four pizzerias have lost $1.4 million combined since March, when the first round of business shutdowns went into effect. In the past two days his pizza parlors in Escondido and Oceanside have been visited by representatives of Alcohol Beverage Control and received warnings, he added.
As for his response to those who might say he is being irresponsible,
Locricchio said, “I have respect for them. Believe me, I’ve heard directly from some of them in the past couple days. But I don’t tell them what to do … I’ve asked them if they’ve ever owned a business and none of them has.”
A husband and wife from Escondido who dined at the pizzeria would not give their names but said they supported the restaurant.
“It’s a very unfair rule,” said the woman. “How do businesses stay open? You can Christmas shop but you can’t eat outdoors. Or you can go to a strip club but you can’t worship.”
Like Alondra Ruiz of The Village, the ownership of the Escondido coffee house The Koffie Co., took to Instagram to explain their position on remaining open.
“We made a decision that some things are fighting for and this is one of those things,” said David Chiddick. “The reason we’re doing all this is because … me and my wife have a right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, We have a right to operate our business, and the governor of our state cannot tell us that we cannot make a living by operating our business as we see fit, just like you have a right to stay home.”
The restaurant, Hunsaker at Vincent’s, also in Escondido, is staying open as well — but only outdoors, on Fridays and Saturdays.
In a post on its Facebook page, the ownership explained its rationale: “We have shut down, we have followed every rule, we have bought everything to make sure we were in compliance and it has put our livelihood for not only ourselves, but our employees at risk. If we shut down right now it is completely over for us and our employees. It will be disastrous to their families. That isn’t something we can comply with.”
A number of restaurants in El Cajon and Santee were seen serving customers on patios Wednesday. The owners of the eateries did not return phone calls and in-person messages from the Union-Tribune inquiring as to why they were defying the current rules.
This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.
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