Will small-business owners go to jail for breaking coronavirus rules? We’ll find out
As the coronavirus pandemic swept through Southern California in late March, police officers visited Janet Tavakoli’s Sherman Oaks beauty supply emporium. She agreed to comply with city rules and shut it down.
By early May, Los Angeles was allowing retailers to offer curbside service, but Tavakoli, 69, figured she had already lost more than $15,000 in sales. She tried offering goods outside the front door for a few days, but it brought in just half her usual traffic. She was fed up.
For the record:
6:44 p.m. May 31, 2020A previous version of this article said 162 businesses were found to be in violation of safety rules on the weekend of May 12. It was the weekend of May 9.
“I cried and cried and cried,” she said. “I needed money. I was depressed.”
After installing plexiglass over the cash register and outfitting her 12 employees with masks and gloves, Tavakoli opened back up, attracting more than 250 shoppers in just three days.
“Our customers, when they found out we were open, they were so happy,” she said.
But that violated L.A.’s curbside-only rule for nonessential businesses — an order lifted only this week and only under certain conditions.
The police returned, and on May 12 City Atty. Michael Feuer announced criminal charges against the Beauty Collection, Tavakoli’s store.
In Alameda County, Elon Musk may have gotten away with reopening his Tesla factory before it was allowed, but Los Angeles is prosecuting more than 70 businesses so far for allegedly flouting COVID-19 rules. They include pet groomers, hair and nail salons, a car wash, a printer, a shoe shop, a textile store, a restaurant, a boxing gym, an electronics outlet, a motorcycle dealership and at least 30 smoke shops.
Penalties if convicted: up to $1,000 in fines and six months in jail.
And more prosecutions are in the pipeline.
“We’ve basically wiped out a decade worth of job creation in a month and a half,” an economist says. May’s unemployment figures will probably look even grimmer.
L.A. County has been slower to lift restrictions than some other California counties, given that it accounts for nearly half of the state’s approximately 107,000 known COVID-19 cases and more than half its approximately 4,000 reported deaths.
But over the past week, it has loosened the rules for retailers, restaurants, barbers and beauty salons, allowing them to welcome customers inside if they comply with strict protocols. Face coverings, physical distancing, barriers, and restrictions on the number of customers are among the requirements. Gyms and movie theaters must remain closed. .
The extent of businesses’ noncompliance, whether deliberate or inadvertent, whether due to catastrophic financial losses or coronavirus fatigue, was evident as county inspectors ramped up this month.
On the weekend of May 9, they visited 410 businesses and found 162 in violation of safety rules, including allowing customers into stores, not requiring face coverings or failing to ensure physical distancing.
The following weekend, inspectors visited 1,648 businesses and found most of them — 1,039 — out of compliance. And last weekend, 675 of 1,021 were in violation of some aspect of the rules.
“Businesses should not open until they can adhere to all the protocols, and they must post a completed checklist in a public place before they open,” said county public health director Barbara Ferrer.
Almost all comply after the visits, according to a health department spokesman.
Some small-business owners facing criminal charges are crying foul. They were confused by evolving rules and received no warnings, they say. Some contend they shut down after a first visit from police officers but were still charged.
“I wasn’t defying orders,” said Steven Spunt, who owns Beach Cities Car Wash in Venice. “I tried to do everything right. It’s mind boggling that they filed charges.”
When shutdown orders took effect, Spunt said he immediately called the city’s 211 hotline to see if his car wash qualified as an essential business because it sanitized taxis and rental cars. A supervisor called back and told him the business did qualify, he said.
“I even got it on a text that said I could continue,” Spunt recalled.
A week or so later, police showed up. As Spunt tells it, he and the officers got on the phone with a city prosecutor who was unsure. Two days later the prosecutor called to say Beach Cities did not qualify.
Spunt said he shut down immediately, only learning weeks later that he was criminally charged.
In black communities, where barbershops and salons are cultural institutions and gathering places, the lockdown has hit barbers and stylists hard.
Feuer declined to comment on specific cases but said his office routinely contacts each business with a warning and doesn’t charge them if they comply right after that.
“I have tremendous empathy for local businesses,” Feuer said. “They have bills to pay and employees who count on them. But if a business is flouting the rules, it is unfair to the thousands who are complying. It undermines our public health and safety.”
Previously announced prosecutions will go forward “because at the time they were out of compliance,” he said. “While they were violating the rule, how many people were congregating in their business? And how many of those people might have been infecting somebody else needlessly?”
Once courts reopen in August, Feuer added, “each case will be tried on its merits.”
Joshua Rubenstein, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Police Department, said officers with LAPD’s “business ambassador” program have visited some 2,000 city locations since March 23. He declined to comment on any of the roughly 100 referred to the city attorney.
“All businesses were afforded warnings before formal enforcement,” he added, including an initial warning letter from Mayor Eric Garcetti. “Officers allowed the business to close if there was a misunderstanding or if the business was unaware of the safer-at-home policy.”
Many businesses closed or complied after charges were filed. “We’re not letting anyone in the door,” said a salesman at the Arabian Nights & Vape Shop on Figueroa Street.
A staffer at Merri’s Grooming Palace in Woodland Hills said last week it was still open to pets “by appointment” — a violation, according to the city attorney’s office.
The COVID-19 pandemic is unleashing a wave of labor unrest harnessing front-line workers’ fear and anger across California and the nation.
And Top Rocker, a Harley-Davidson dealership in Canoga Park, was charged before the county reclassified dealerships as essential on May 8, according to a Feuer spokesman.
Ricky Funez, owner of the Ten Goose Boxing Gym in Van Nuys, said he closed when the city’s March order took effect. Weeks later, he said, police officers visited the gym when he was inside with his nephew and one of his trainers.
“They assumed we were open to the public because we were going in and out,” Funez said. “But I check in on my business every day to see nobody has broken in or tagged me.”
The next day another trainer was at the gym, chatting with a longtime client who had popped in unexpectedly “to see what was happening,” when police stopped by again.
“We were not open,” Funez said on a recent day as his ring stood empty, surrounded by red, white and blue punching bags. “We were not training anybody.”
Last month, he was astonished to get a notice of criminal charges in the mail. “It’s been overwhelming, what with everything else,” he said, adding that he has lost $16,000 in monthly revenue since the gym, and an adjacent barber shop he owns, have shut down.
Funez said he never received Garcetti’s letter or any warning from prosecutors or police.
Nor, by his own account, did Amir Amirkhanian, owner of the Ultimate Smoke Shop in Van Nuys, which offers lemon mint and pina colada vape bars and a wide selection of water pipes.
Amirkhanian said police visited his shop April 13. “I seriously didn’t know we were supposed to be closed,” he said. “I don’t watch TV.”
He did close, he said, but interpreted a notice the police gave him as mandating just a week’s closure. Three days after reopening on April 20, he said, he received a letter with the criminal charge.
Another thing that confuses Amirkhanian: “Why are all the alcohol stores wide open?” he asks. “Why are they essential businesses and mine is not?”
Although smoke shops amount to half of the businesses charged so far, Feuer said they have not been deliberately targeted. “There have been a lot of complaints about smoke shops,” he said. “I don’t know why that particular sector of the business community appears to be flouting the rules.”
Ahmed Roushdy, general manager of Hamptons 818, a popular Sherman Oaks restaurant, also describes his encounter with police as a misunderstanding.
Hamptons 818, he said, had switched to takeout and delivery in March when dine-in service was outlawed. “But sometimes when our regular customers were waiting to pick up their food, I offered them a drink on the house, just to be hospitable,” he said.
In early April, two police officers showed up and took photographs of two women drinking champagne while waiting for takeout.
“They gave me a lecture,” Roushdy said. “I took it as a verbal warning. I didn’t argue, and we haven’t done that since.”
But while police said they would be back to check compliance, Roushdy said, they never did return. On April 30, a letter arrived outlining criminal charges.
“It’s unbelievable,” he said. “I don’t know that what we did is a criminal act.”
Stuart Waldman, president of the Valley Industry & Commerce Assn., an influential San Fernando Valley group, said he has received no complaints about enforcement of safer-at-home rules.
But the business owners charged “aren’t criminals,” he said. “These are people just trying to survive, and many might not fully understand the rules. It’s more important to explain the rules to them than to charge them.”
Tavakoli at the Sherman Oaks Beauty Connection said she is confused by the safer-at-home orders. “I sell tons of sanitizer, and masks too,” she said. “So why wasn’t I essential?”
Moreover, the Rite-Aid next door was allowed to remain open selling all the products she does — makeup, shampoo, nail polish — to customers roaming the aisles. Pharmacies could have been restricted to medical sales, she suggested.
Beyond her gripes about what she sees as competition, Tavakoli has a more urgent concern: “They’ve put me down as a criminal,” she said. “Are they going to take me to jail?”