How some restaurants have challenged LA County due to COVID-19

Time and time again, public health inspectors have returned to the Italian restaurant in the Westlake Village shopping center.

They found Café Nouveau serving diners indoors and out, despite a Los Angeles County order to prevent it during the worst wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to county records. Time and time again, they hand over citations with a $500 fine.

In February, the county revoked the restaurant’s public health permit. Novo Café remained open. This summer, co-owner Massimo Forte told the newspaper NBC 4 The news crew who photographed unmasked workers at the restaurant saw compliance with mask requirements as a “sign of submission.”

As of early November, Novo Cafe has been fined $86,000 for dozens of citations — and none of those fines were paid, county officials said. It had received more than 90 citations by mid-November, according to the Department of Public Health.

Novo is among a small number of companies that have tested the powers and patience of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health amid a pandemic that has placed new demands on the enforcement arm. Across the country, experts say, public health agencies have at times struggled to enforce such rules amid resource pressures and overt challenges to their authority.

“Health departments are busy right now,” said Laurie Tremmel Freeman, chief executive of the National Assn. County and city health officials. At the same time, “the public health authority faces challenges across the country,” like many countries sought to stifling their powers.

“Because of the politicization” around COVID-19 rules, some companies “will just choose to get fined and stay open,” said Shera Shaffer, associate professor at UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. She added that public health agencies with limited staff and resources might weigh whether “the juice is worth it”.

“If they send in an inspector every day, is it likely to change the behavior of the company?” She asked. “If not, it could lead to more backlash against the Ministry of Health. Not only did you not achieve your goal… you helped stoke more resentment.”

But some have questioned why officials have not taken more aggressive action. “It bothers me that the district cites some Business “Over and over again and not shutting down,” said Kurt Petersen, co-chair of Unite Here Local 11, a union representing hotel workers in Southern California.

In Los Angeles County, where some companies have rejected new and evolving rules aimed at combating the spread of the coronavirus, the Department of Public Health has withdrawn permits and, in some cases, gone to court.

Under provincial law, the Department of Public Health issues $500 citations per day for violations of COVID-19 health orders. Repeat offenders also face a “non-compliance fee” that is charged to re-examination costs. The county can suspend and eventually revoke the public health permit.

In many cases, these tools seem to be enough to make businesses compliant: Although more than 1,500 citations have been issued to Los Angeles County firms to challenge health requests linked to the pandemic, most of these firms have been cited once or twice, Times analysis of publicly published county records found. These totals do not include citations for other violations, such as working without a public health permit.

But a handful of companies, including Novo Cafe, have held out even after losing their public health permit.

Earlier this month, Novo was warned that if it did not stop operating illegally, “the county will have to take all necessary measures,” including the possibility of a lawsuit, according to a letter from county counsel Rodrigo A. Castro Silva.

In his “cease and desist” letter, Castro Silva said the restaurant continued to operate illegally after its permit was revoked and a “continuous violation” of health orders, including not requiring masks for its workers. By doing so, you “have endangered the health and safety of employees, customers dining in the restaurant, and the community at large,” he wrote.

Forte declined to comment. Restaurateurs called the boycott “illegal and inappropriate” in a lawsuit against the city of Westlake Village, which revoked its permit to sell alcohol.

In a legal filing, they said no cases of COVID-19 had been reported to the restaurant and said they had “reasonable safeguards and measures” in place to protect staff and customers. They also argued that asking restaurant employees to enforce mask rules was like “forcing these employees to practice medicine without a license.”

Another frequent violator is Cronies Sports Grill in Agoura Hills, which received more than 80 citations for violating COVID-19 orders between December and July, according to county records. In December, she hosted a protest in her yard against the county’s ban on outdoor dining that had been imposed as cases surged.

“This is not a political thing. It is a right or wrong thing. It makes sense,” was the owner of the restaurant Dave Voldis Quotes in acorn Newspaper. “Let’s keep our business open. Let’s keep our livelihood.”

In January, Los Angeles County sued Cronies for violating emergency orders. She also sued Tinhorn Flats, a Burbank restaurant fly in the face of To stop eating outdoors. Cronies recently arrived in settlement With the county to pay due citations and costs of $9999; The added penalties are suspended unless he violates health orders. The lawsuit against the Tinhorn Flats is ongoing.

The county has also filed a lawsuit against gyms that defied orders against internal operations, website Agua Dulce accused of illegally hosting large weddings and parties and a Covina restaurant called Bread & Barley.

A man holding a sign that says "First Amendment Right of Assembly" in protest.

Patrons protesting the state’s December 2020 shutdown order gather at Cronies Sports Grill in Agoura Hills.

(Milcon/Los Angeles Times)

Freeman, of the Association of National Health Officials, said that public health departments were understaffed even before the pandemic, and usually when COVID-19 measures are unpopular, “it can be very difficult for a local health department to be able to enforce them without the backing and support” of elected officials.

Indeed, Freeman added, public health agencies tend to try to convince people more than punish them.

Angelo Bellomo, the former deputy director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, said the agency has historically failed to use citations and fines to push companies into action.

“Historically the department has used these tools insufficiently against non-compliant companies,” said Bellomo, who retired from the department two years ago. “To be fair, when we brought cases to the highest level” — to city or county prosecutors — they “did not receive the urgent attention that the department thought was justified.”

Besides boycott efforts, city governments have put pressure on businesses defying COVID-19 rules: Burbank city officials put up a fence About Tinhorn Flats to prevent it from reopening and revoke the conditional use permit before the restaurant opens pushed out this summer.

Agoura Hills prosecutors had filed a criminal case against Cronies, accusing the restaurant of doing business without a valid license and disturbing the public. Fuldes told The Times that he and his associates settled in the county because that was the only way the city would give up its case.

At a February meeting, Westlake Village officials said Café Nouveau had made the decision to defy the county’s rules, leaving them only the option to revoke a permit to sell alcoholic beverages, which included a requirement that the restaurant comply with county health requirements. Council member Kelly Honig said restaurants and other businesses also struggled financially but followed the rules.

“He’s showing a bit of a disregard for the rest of our community,” Councilman Ned E. Davies said.

Attorney James Lloyd, who represents the restaurant, argued that his clients are “pursuing their inalienable rights to protest what they believe is an unconstitutional rule.” Towards the end of the meeting, Novo Café co-owner Tina Pasha told the city council that they had no choice in light of the economic pressures on their families. While she was struggling to keep speaking, Forte stormed in.

We understand exactly what’s going on with the pandemic. “We respect people’s lives,” he said. “We are not criminals.” Since then, Forte and Pasha have filed a lawsuit in an attempt to revoke the alcoholic beverage permit.

Before the pandemic, Los Angeles County public health inspectors were already inspecting several businesses and sites, including apartment buildings and restaurants where they hand out food safety letter grades. When the coronavirus hit, they had to juggle existing duties with the new responsibilities associated with the pandemic.

There are approximately 575 employees within the Environmental Health Division — which handles inspections of restaurants and a host of other businesses — now working on enforcement and compliance issues related to COVID-19 orders, according to Robert Ragland, chief compliance officer for the Department of Public Affairs. the health. Ragland said the Environmental Health Department is now handling COVID-19 compliance inspections for all venues besides health facilities.

Sometimes, it can get confrontational: The district’s lawsuit against Bread & Barley alleges that a public health inspector was threatened and insulted by a Covina gastropub representative, who followed the inspector and parked the person’s car with his truck. Once, after calling the police officers, restaurateur Carlos Roman told them he was desperate.

“You all got paid, right?” Roman tells the officers and the inspector in a video of the incident posted online.

“She doesn’t,” Roman says, referring to the manager of his restaurant. “The cook does not.”

County officials said the health inspector faced phone threats and protests in his office, prompting the Department of Public Health to hire security personnel, after Roman posted on Instagram a quote from the department with the inspector’s information.

In turn, Roman said in an interview that he received an outpouring of support after confronting the inspector. The restaurant owner said he was upset because the county inspector said he would fine them after a customer sat outside to eat after receiving the order.

“How do you expect me to observe outer space?” Asked.

The county said in its lawsuit that Bread & Barley repeatedly violated the health system by hosting it for outdoor dining last December. Roman said he kept his restaurant open after his public health permit was suspended and for at least a few days after it was canceled, but decided to quickly resolve the matter when a lawyer warned him that the legal consequences could be dire.

Bread & Barley has reached an agreement with the county to pay the costs owed about $4,300 and compliance with health orders, with additional penalties of $35,000 pending, as per court requirement.

Roman said he also faced additional costs, including lost income from the shutdown as he negotiated with the county to get his permit back.

“They will break you financially. They will keep issuing quote after quote,” Roman said.

He said other restaurants might try to hold out for longer, but it was “just a matter of time”.

Times staff writers Hugo Martin and Christian Martinez contributed to this report.

Write a Comment