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As Covid crisis grows, many California businesses flout the rules

"I have to support my family," said a restaurant owner in San Diego County who is keeping his place open for outdoor dining despite orders against it.
Image: California dining
Waitress Penny Thompson prepares drinks as patrons dine at Notorious Burgers restaurant in Carlsbad, Calif., on Dec. 18.Ringo H.W. Chiu / AP file

SAN DIEGO — Up and down the coastal boulevards of San Diego County, restaurants are buzzing with commerce as customers in sunglasses enjoy cocktails and bar food al fresco.

Sandwich boards placed on sidewalks advertise the services of massage parlors that had been closed for months. Some Southern California gyms are allowing muscle-building indoors. And tribal casinos welcome gamers.

As the pandemic reaches new heights in California, many residents, tourists and business owners are doing the opposite of what's needed to slow the spread of coronavirus, experts say. They're defying stay-at-home rules, recently extended until hospitalizations subside, that ban dining, and nonessential retailers and services.

"I have to support my family," said Brian Gruber, who owns Notorious Burgers, a Carlsbad eatery open for outdoor dining. "I feel like these small businesses staying open are in the same boat."

Carlsbad, a coastal community in northern San Diego County, has been a hotspot for disobedience despite the threat of fines. In the San Diego neighborhood of Miramar, a stage collapsed at an illegal New Year's Eve warehouse party, authorities said, injuring three people.

Two beach neighborhoods in San Diego, Pacific Beach and La Jolla, have been rife with diners.

In North Park the circa-1938 diner Rudford's is on the precipice of permanent closure, said owner Jeff Kasha. As a result, he said, he plans to reopen indoor dining Saturday.

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"I don’t think we can survive another shutdown, so we have to defy," he said.

"We didn’t have Christmas," Kasha added. "I didn't buy my kids presents."

For business owners like Kasha and Gruber, the financial fallout is real. The California Restaurant Association said in August that thousands of restaurants had closed permanently, and 900,000 to 1 million restaurant workers had been laid off or furloughed since March.

Temecula, a city in Riverside County, has become notorious for flouting the rules, and in Orange County, a bar owner was charged Thursday with "illegally operating," according to the district attorney's office.

Orange County prosecutors also claim that Luisza Giulietta Mauro, manager of Westend Bar in Costa Mesa, tried to prevent a police officer from going inside on Dec. 12.

"It is unacceptable for a business to repeatedly [flout] the regulations and continue to operate without even attempting to institute any mitigating measures that are designed to save lives," said Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer, in a statement.

In early December, the sheriff's departments in Orange and Riverside counties indicated that stay-at-home enforcement wouldn't be prioritized. In San Diego County, sheriff's deputies accompany health inspectors as they deliver cease-and-desist orders to noncompliant businesses. Los Angeles authorities have cracked down on allegedly illicit party houses.

Authorities in the Los Angeles area contended with a New Year's Eve concert and service organized by Christian activist Sean Feucht, who earlier in the day conducted homeless outreach at a city park. He also organized a meal distribution event on Skid Row. Many of his followers eschewed mask-wearing.

The governor's office could not be reached Friday to comment on the alleged lawbreakers and enforcement efforts, although it's up to individual cities and counties to enforce the state orders.

"The California Department of Public Health stresses the importance of continuing mitigation efforts to prevent COVID-19 transmission," the department said by email.

Image: Outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Commerce
Closed-off outdoor dining areas at Citadel Outlets as the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases surge in Commerce, California, on Dec. 27, 2020.Bing Guan / Reuters

San Diego County health officials reported a record daily number of virus-related deaths Thursday at 62, and at least four people were found to have a more-transmissible variant of Covid-19, known as B.1.1.7, first discovered in the United Kingdom.

Some hospitals in the region were running out of morgue space as county health officials used refrigerated trailers to store the overflow of bodies.

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In Los Angeles County, where 207 coronavirus-related deaths were reported Friday, many hospitals were overwhelmed, with some using makeshift intensive care units inside gift shops and pediatric wards.

The rule-flouting in San Diego inspired recently sworn Mayor Todd Gloria to order "stronger enforcement for those blatantly and egregiously defying local and state health orders," he tweeted.

"Failure to comply with any of the provisions of these orders constitutes an imminent threat and menace to public health, and is a public nuisance and imperils the lives or property of inhabitants of the City," the order states.