By Bernard J. Wolfson and Anna Almendrala
California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s maskless dinner with medical industry lobbyists and others at a Napa County restaurant where meals cost a minimum of $350 per head was just about the last straw for some beleaguered California small-business owners.
With their livelihoods on the line, a growing number of them are openly defying the latest orders to shut down as COVID cases skyrocket in California — and pointing to Newsom’s bad behavior.
“We are definitely not complying. We have enough information to make an educated decision: The data do not back another shutdown,” said Miguel Aguilar, founder and owner of Self Made Training Facility, based in Temecula, California, which leases space to physical trainers and nutrition advisers and has 40 locations across 11 states, including 15 in California.
The news of Newsom’s Nov. 6 dinner at the French Laundry in Yountville only strengthened Aguilar’s resolve. “Yes, we all make mistakes, but his apology was pathetic,” Aguilar said. “He told us he was outdoors, but then the photos surfaced. He can attend in-person gatherings, but we can’t? There’s absolutely no trust there.”
New COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have surged at an alarming rate in California, with a seven-day average of over 11,500 cases Saturday, more than triple the number of a month earlier. Hospitalizations have doubled over the same period, according to the Los Angeles Times, part of a national trend that has pushed total COVID infections in the U.S. above 12 million.
In most California counties, restaurants, fitness clubs, yoga studios, churches, movie theaters and museums that have already been through two previous shutdowns and reopenings since March are once again required to cease indoor operations — just as winter hits. Some are laying off workers for the third time this year.
Add to that the failure of Congress to pass another stimulus package and, in many cases, a preexisting mistrust of government mandates. It all amounts to more disgruntled entrepreneurs.
Larry McNamer, owner of Major’s Diner in the tiny San Diego County community of Pine Valley, said he is continuing to serve people indoors, even though the county closed indoor dining on Nov. 14 in accordance with state regulations. He doesn’t believe the government has the right to impose such an ordinance on him. And, he said, Newsom’s dinner fiasco helped him make his decision to stay open.
“We’re having to deal with all of the lying, the hypocrisy — you’ve got a governor that’s running around ignoring his own mandates,” McNamer said.
McNamer knows the pandemic is real, he said. He is seating only a quarter of his normal indoor capacity and has added distance between tables. But after closing the restaurant from March 15 to May 23, laying off half his employees and falling $200,000 behind on rent and other bills, McNamer isn’t sure how much more his business can take.
Last Wednesday, he was hit with a cease-and-desist order from the county, threatening him with a fine of $1,000 for each offense. San Diego County law enforcement officers are aggressively pursuing violations of public health orders, and the county has issued at least 83 citations to businesses since Nov. 16.
In many other counties, including Riverside, Orange, San Bernardino and Placer, sheriffs and police departments have rejected the COVID ordinances or expressed reluctance to enforce them.
Last week, Newsom announced that 41 of California’s 58 counties — representing 94% of the population — were in the state’s “purple” tier — the most severe of four color-coded risk levels that impose increasingly restrictive limits on business activities. That was up from 13 purple counties the week before.
A few days later, the governor ordered a curfew, requiring people in the purple counties to stay at home between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. unless they’re performing essential activities, including certain jobs, grocery shopping or going to the doctor.
Los Angeles County went a step further Sunday, banning outdoor dining for at least three weeks. Unlike earlier in the year when that measure was ordered, now no federal financial aid is available to restaurants or their employees. Indoor dining has been shut down in the county for months.
Despite plunging revenue, mounting debt and the frustrating uncertainty of shifting goal posts, many small-business owners are not defying the latest public health restrictions, either out of a sense of responsibility or fear of enforcement actions — or of contracting the virus themselves.
Those who do flout public health ordinances are doing so for a variety of reasons, with economics topping the list.
“There are people who are protecting their employment, protecting their income,” said Vickie Mays, a clinical psychologist and professor of health policy and management at UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health. “There are no stimulus checks coming. There’s no alternative.”
Many people who own their own businesses “have taken other risks in their lives, and the risks they have taken have paid off, so there’s a belief that despite this risk, you’re not going to get infected,” Mays said.
Many business owners, whether they comply with the health orders or not, believe their industries are being unfairly targeted and that the risk of viral spread in their establishments is not as great as officials say.
Scott Slater, who owns two restaurants in San Diego’s seaside community of La Jolla, said he was frustrated by the public health focus on restaurants when a lot of COVID transmission is happening in private home gatherings.
“We’re a perfect scapegoat,” Slater said. “They can control us, but they can’t control someone’s own home.” He called Newsom’s dinner “a slap in the face” but said he and his wife are complying with the new restrictions, scraping by on catering, takeout and delivery — though he estimates they are $200,000 behind on rent.
Francesca Schuler, CEO of Stockton, California-based In-Shape Health Clubs, which has more than 60 fitness centers and just laid off most of its staff for the third time this year, said gyms should be viewed as part of the solution, not the problem.
“I look at people who are dying of COVID, and it’s people who are overweight, who have high blood pressure or diabetes,” said Schuler, who is respecting the closure orders despite her objection to them. “There are a lot of people who are trying to exercise to stay healthy, yet they shut down gyms while people can still go to tattoo parlors, to McDonald’s and to liquor stores. I just don’t get it.”
Mays, however, said gyms are considered high-risk because “people are breathing hard; they are expelling air further.”
And there are multiple ways people can stay fit without going to a gym, though outdoor exercise can be difficult sometimes because of heat and wildfire smoke, or in high-crime areas.
In many cases, the pandemic restrictions are crushing enterprises small-business owners have struggled to build over a lifetime. They’ve invested their savings, time, sweat and dreams in building something from the ground up, and now it’s threatened.
Aguilar, who owns the training facility company, said he comes from a broken family, was homeless and penniless at age 16 and later got his start giving physical training lessons out of his garage. From that, he built his coast-to-coast chain.
“At this point,” he said, “if I’m going to lose it all, I might as well go down fighting.”