After a month of strict restrictions on California businesses, including bans on outdoor dining and wine tastings, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced an easing of shutdown rules last night. The move is welcome news to a coalition of 50 impacted businesses in the Bay Area that filed a lawsuit last week against Newsom and the state's public health officer, Tomás Aragón.
Representing a range of businesses, from winery tasting rooms and hotels to pizzerias and fine-dining restaurants, the Wine Country Coalition for Safe Reopening filed suit Jan. 19, alleging that the ban was arbitrary and unfair. "The governor has insisted that data and science were going to be driving all the decisions," said Carl Dene, owner of Sam's General Store and Brannan Cottage Inn in Calistoga and an official spokesperson for the coalition. "They've not once been able to show any data that supports the closure of outdoor dining."
California is the only state in the country to impose such strict restrictions on outdoor dining and tasting. But it's also the state with the highest number of total coronavirus cases. Infections have skyrocketed since the start of November, growing from a seven-day average of about 3,200 new cases per day in October to a seven-day average of more than 44,000 new cases per day on Jan. 13. More than 37,000 people have died of COVID-19 in California.
In December, Newsom responded by imposing new restrictions, triggered if any of the state's five regions reported their hospital intensive-care unit available capacity dropped below 15 percent. All five regions hit that mark. The stay-at-home order closed bars, wineries, nail salons, hair salons and barbershops, and other personal care services. Private gatherings of any size were prohibited. Restaurants had to shut down in-person dining, even outdoors, but were allowed to continue takeout and delivery.
In a statement last night, health officials announced they expect ICU capacity to exceed 15 percent in all regions in coming weeks. "Each region's a little bit different, but we are in a position projected four weeks forward with a significant decline in the case rates positivity rates," the governor said. "Still more decline hospitalizations and more declines in ICU, and that's why we're lifting that stay-at-home order effective immediately."
Helpful or hurtful?
"We are gratified that the governor has ended this needlessly devastating ban," said Dene, in a statement. "Our first order of business is now getting our employees back to work so that we can resume serving our patrons safely. We will, however, be consulting with our attorneys on the next steps for our lawsuit to ensure our members are protected in the future."
While the coalition members say they respect the governor's right to impose restrictions to try and control the pandemic, they believe shutting down outdoor activities makes little sense. The suit argued that this shutdown creates a "Prohibition-like atmosphere," eliminating the option of regulated outdoor activity and consequently driving people toward more dangerous and unregulated indoor activities, like gathering with friends at a home.
The damage from the shutdown was compounded, these businesses argue, by all the money, time and resources they invested since March to comply with changing state regulations. "We've answered to everything they've told us to do. We've spent tens of thousands of dollars making our places safe for people," Dene said. "Training and signage and sanitation stations—we've done everything."
Newsom has had to grapple with numerous suits against shutdown rules. Napa vintner Chuck Wagner briefly sued in May over rules that kept Napa wineries from reopening for tastings, but dropped the suit when the state loosened restrictions as cases went down.
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