California threatens to pull alcohol licenses of businesses that reopened early

The public health officer who allowed restaurants and hair salons in two California counties to open in defiance of a statewide shutdown said Wednesday that many businesses were not following proper safety protocols.

The announcement from Dr. Phuong Luu, the health officer for Yuba and Sutter counties, came as state officials threatened to revoke alcohol licenses from restaurants that followed Luu’s reopening order, which went into effect Monday.

In a letter to local businesses Wednesday, Luu said that a combination of media reports and calls to a local compliance center showed that many shops were missing at least two “vital cornerstones” to prevent the spread of coronavirus — social distancing and face coverings.

Luu said it was unlikely that indoor businesses would be able to consistently keep customers and clients distant enough that they could operate without requiring face coverings. “Therefore, such operations must include both,” she wrote. “I understand that some of your customers may strongly object to a facial covering requirement, but the long-term safety of our community is at stake. We do not want to take any steps back in our phasing-in efforts.”

The two counties located north of Sacramento have a combined population of roughly 175,000. County data shows that 50 cases of the coronavirus have been confirmed since March. Eight people have been hospitalized and three have died from COVID-19.

The last new case was reported April 27, one week before Luu’s reopening order went into effect.

Interviews Monday with restaurant workers in Yuba City, the region’s largest town, showed a mixed response to Luu’s order, which she called “evidence-based” and “grounded in science.”

A cook at one restaurant said customers and staff were required to wear face coverings inside. But at another restaurant, Tim McKenna, who helps his wife run Linda’s Soda Bar and Grill, said neither employees nor customers needed them.

“I’m not the social police,” he said.

Chris Krachie, the assistant manager at Pete’s Restaurant and Brewhouse, also in Yuba City, said Thursday that his staff was required to wear face coverings but customers weren’t.

“It’s pretty hard to eat with a face mask,” he said.

Krachie said agents from the state Department of Alcohol Beverage Control visited the restaurant Tuesday and threatened to revoke the restaurant’s license if it continued serving alcohol.

“They told us our license is a state license, and because it’s from the state we had to follow the state’s shelter-in-place order,” he said, adding. “There was nothing we could do. We stopped.”

“They’re hitting businesses where it hurts most,” he said. “People were excited to go out and have a beer and relax. They shot that down.”

The shelter-in-place order, which Gov. Gavin Newsom issued March 19, allows restaurants to offer only takeout and delivery services. In a news conference Tuesday, Newsom scolded Sutter and Yuba counties, saying they were making “a big mistake” by defying the state order and endangering residents.

Newsom’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday about the threat to revoke licenses, but a spokesman for the state’s beverage control department, John Carr, confirmed that agents visited “multiple” locations in the two counties on Tuesday. As of Thursday, he said the department had not disciplined any of them.

“We hope for voluntary compliance,” he said.

Carr added that agents from the department have undertaken similar enforcement efforts in Southern California. As of last Friday, 80 of 81 businesses had voluntarily complied, he said.

Beginning Friday, some businesses across the state will be allowed to reopen, including manufacturers, warehouses and some retailers that offer curbside pickup. Asked Thursday when restaurants can reopen, Newsom told reporters that businesses in “some counties” in “certain parts” of the state may get the go-ahead after dine-in guidelines are released next week.

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