County reopening plan rejected, then approved after surprise ABC crackdown

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California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control officers finally offered an explanation for their confusing enforcement efforts in South County July 3.

However, since then the state’s public health department has granted Santa Clara County the necessary permits to allow outdoor dining—the chief alleged violation that ABC officers were investigating at Morgan Hill and Gilroy residents at the start of the holiday weekend.

County officials also announced July 7 that the state has approved Santa Clara County Public Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody’s updated health order that implements “across-the-board risk reduction measures” to combat the spread of Covid-19.

“As a result, outdoor dining can continue in Santa Clara County,” county public health staff said July 7. Cody’s updated health order will go into effect July 13.  

Some restaurant owners and staff were reportedly frightened and furious by the end of the night July 3, when armed ABC officers entered numerous establishments that were serving customers for outdoor dining. The officers told restaurant staff that they were in violation of the state’s Covid-19 social distancing and essential business guidelines, and ordered them to cease all operations, except takeout service, before the July 4 holiday rush.

ABC spokesman John Carr said the officers did not issue any citations to the local restaurants. The officers were acting on the county’s lack of state approval for outdoor dining, which has been in place at local restaurants for more than a month.

“ABC agents just told businesses in Santa Clara County that their county does not have attestation/variance yet and technically restaurants and bars that serve food in their county are supposed to be takeout only at this time until attestation/variance is approved by health authorities,” Carr said in a July 6 emailed statement. “ABC does not make a determination whether a county can reopen.”

Carr clarified that the state office did not “shut down” any of the restaurants contacted, but rather focused on advising staff of the alleged violation.

That explanation wasn’t good enough for city officials and restaurant owners, who said nobody from the state notified local authorities that outdoor dining was not permitted in Santa Clara County. Cody issued an order opening up restaurants to outdoor dining in early June, but no one from the state claimed that was a problem until the ABC officers showed up unexpectedly July 3.

Restaurants in Gilroy were “approached and told to close” by ABC officers the night of July 3, said Gilroy Chamber of Commerce CEO Mark Turner. He added that one of the restaurants’ staff was told that if they reopen, they would be subject to criminal citation.

“We feel this is harassment of South County businesses,” Turner said. “Businesses are suffering as it is, and they’re in compliance with the governor’s orders. We are totally outraged by this incident.”

The ABC’s actions July 3 didn’t seem to persuade many restaurants to pack up their outdoor dining patios. Dan McCranie, owner of Ladera Grill in Morgan Hill, vowed on July 4 to continue serving customers outdoors until he sees some “clear, definitive” prohibition of such business from state authorities.

Interim City Administrator Jimmy Forbis on July 6 called the ordeal “thoroughly confusing,” and said he’s been asked by many businesses and elected officials on the status of the state’s order.

“I don’t feel comfortable telling businesses what they should do or not do in this instance because of the confusion,” he said. “Some businesses I’ve seen are continuing to do outdoor dining, but I can’t tell you if that’s advisable or not advisable.”

The state’s July 7 approval of Cody’s latest health order comes even as Covid-19 cases continue to climb in Santa Clara County. A graph of positive cases on the county’s website shows daily totals at the end of June and early July are far exceeding those of March and April, when the state and county’s most stringent stay-at-home orders were in effect.

The June 23 tally, for example, shows the highest single-day Covid-19 case count of 193 cases. Daily totals have exceeded 100 almost every day in Santa Clara County since June 15.

Cody’s latest order, which is now approved to start July 13, applies new standards for more workplaces and industries to reopen. Gyms, hair salons and small public gatherings could resume if venues and businesses meet the county’s new standards.

State officials initially denied the county’s new proposed order the morning of July 4, before reversing course July 7 after receiving more details from the county. 

Last week, Gov. Gavin Newsom placed Santa Clara County on a “watch list” of 19 counties where Covid-19 cases are rising sharply, and where recent reopening activities could be reversed. The ABC officers who visited local restaurants on July 3 reportedly showed staff a copy of Newsom’s July 1 directive, which referred to the 19 counties.

On July 6, however, Newsom removed Santa Clara County from that list.

Carr said the July 3 ABC operation was part of a statewide enforcement effort. Between July 3 and July 5, ABC visited more than 5,800 businesses in 21 counties and wrote 52 citations for various violations of state public health Covid-19 regulations. In Santa Clara County, the officers visited 121 establishments.

In Morgan Hill, the ABC agents explained to the restaurants that the county did not have permission from the state to open outdoor dining and were “technically in violation of California’s stay-at-home orders,” Carr said. “Many business owners asked if they needed to cease operations immediately. ABC explained that they could continue with service until their regularly scheduled closing time. Agents further explained that they should not reopen to indoor or outdoor seating in violation of the stay at home orders, however, they may remain open as a take-out operation.”

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