Few in Southern California prosecuted for refusing to comply with coronavirus laws

Outdoor dining at Tinhorn Flats Saloon & Grill in Burbank was bustling when Los Angeles County health inspectors visited on Dec. 13, with 20-plus customers eating and drinking, court documents show.

But even outdoor dining had been banned in the county by then. Through January, health inspectors visited and cited the Western-themed bar that serves up burgers 28 times.

It had its health permit suspended for refusing to close down, and early last week a Los Angeles Superior Court judge weighed in, granting a restraining order to close Tinhorn Flats. Friday, the judge went further and ruled the city could cut off the electricity in its efforts to finally shutter the business.

As the pandemic shows signs of weakening, dining laws have been relaxed – but the feud centering on previous allegations continues.  Representatives for Tinhorn Flats didn’t return calls for comment, but on Facebook the establishment said its piece:

“I simply will NEVER comply. … I choose to disobey rules that have zero science behind them and rules that directly threaten my livelihood needlessly. These people implementing and following these rules do NOT represent my values nor my beliefs. I will go down with my ship if need be.”

During the pandemic’s one-year grip on Southern California, such legal wrangling between law enforcement and the public for violating temporary laws meant to curb COVID-19 have been rare. Fines have been unusual and even then largely minimal – going to jail unheard of.

Officials have pleaded with residents to heed lockdown orders to keep hospitals from filling up and to suppress the number of deaths. When law enforcement dug in, it seems, that was only when accused offenders had as well, or the violation was very public.

Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco’s refusal to enforce the health orders has drawn national attention, with the sheriff accusing Gov. Gavin Newsom of trying to strong-arm counties into enforcing the regulations.

Riverside police officers have focused on education and passing out masks to those who needed them, Officer Javier Cabrera said. Between July 8 and Jan. 3, the department contacted more than 4,500 people related to “mask education and enforcement,” the officer said, passing out nearly 4,000 free masks.

Riverside officers also checked on nearly 2,000 businesses, opting to offer education to the 143 of them found to be out of compliance with at least one health order.

Meanwhile, in San Bernardino County, “Our office has not received any cases,” said Mike Bires, a spokesman for the District Attorney’s Office, when asked if any charges had been filed against businesses refusing to close down or individuals not following COVID-19 laws such as those requiring mask wearing.

And the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department has said its deputies would not cite people without masks on in public.

In Orange County – where a number of business owners defied the mandates in acts of financial survival or protest – only one has faced criminal charges for operating illegally during the pandemic. That business – the Westend Bar in Costa Mesa – was also accused by city officials of expanding its operations during the pandemic, turning into a “nightclub-style environment.”

In a statement, the bar said it has been largely compliant with the COVID-19 safety protocols and is fighting to keep the business open and staff employed. Owner Roland Barrera said he felt targeted and chose to “offer a late-night food menu to a community that is struggling mentally like the rest of the country.”

In one of Orange County’s largest cities, Anaheim, police officers know they can hand out citations for violating a health order but hadn’t.

“We hold that in reserve and try to get residents’ cooperation,” Sgt. Shane Carringer said. “Our experience is that most people when we have to be called out to a large gathering are very compliant. Our underlying principle is we want cooperation through education.”

In the last year, the city has fielded 600-plus complaints for businesses not following the pandemic-related health guidelines, resulting in 278 “notice-of-violation letters,” said Lauren Gold, a city spokeswoman.

In massive, sprawling Los Angeles County, relatively few faced legal trouble for pandemic-related violations as well.

The L.A. County District Attorney’s Office could only identify a handful of charges filed against a business owner in the last year for not following lockdown orders. The Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department did break up so-called “super-spreader” parties with helicopters, fleets of cruisers and deputies who detained around 230 people, most cited on suspicion of violating a health order and released.

More than 60 people were arrested at two weekend parties, accused of violating Los Angeles County coronavirus health orders by attending underground parties that constituted superspreader events, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department announced Monday. (LASD)

Last April, Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer’s office targeted 25 or so businesses, their owners charged with misdemeanors for refusing to shut down. Of those, 19 cases were dismissed, including five business owners who didn’t even contest the charges, according to court records. Another business owner admitted guilt. Her punishment? Paying $100. Another five cases were pending.

Feuer’s office also has filed at least seven cases against accused ringleaders of large parties held in Los Angeles despite city lockdowns, including social media stars Bryce Hall and Blake Gray, and professional skateboarder Nyjah Huston. They each face paying up to $500 for the public-nuisance charge and up to six months in jail and up to a $1,000 fine if found to have violated the mayor’s emergency order, a misdemeanor. The pair of TikTok stars and the skateboarder have all pleaded not guilty.

In Long Beach, one citation was issued to a smoke shop owner accused of not closing, another to a visitor to a park shut down because of the coronavirus, said City Prosecutor Doug Haubert, adding, “99% of people (have) complied with the Safer at Home order.”

And then there is Long Beach’s legal battle with Restauration on Fourth Street.

When owner Dana Tanner wouldn’t stop in-person dining in December, as required for the second time during the pandemic, she was charged with four misdemeanors related to violating state health orders and city codes.

After city workers shut off the gas in late January, her restaurant stayed open.

Restauration owner Dana Tanner (right) talks about the fire that did extensive damage to Restauration on 4th Street in Long Beach on Thursday, Nov. 29, 2018. (File photo by Scott Varley, Daily Breeze/SCNG)

Outdoor dining, Tanner said, with face coverings and social distancing should have been allowed. It was frustrating for her to see Orange County restaurants keep their doors open just miles away, despite health orders asking them to close them.

“If I could safely give people a place to work and dine – in my heart, I knew I could do it and I did,” she said. “I was wrestling really hard with the fact that I would be putting people out of work, when I didn’t feel there was a valid reason to do so. People are grownups, we can make our own decisions, we can be responsible – I felt we could be responsible.”

Now, as restrictions are loosening up for Southern California restaurants, Tanner, like Tinhorn Flats, still must contend with legal issues from the recent past.

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