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California

Some California businesses reopen in defiance of coronavirus stay-at-home orders

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Cops and protesters find a shady spot Saturday along Pacific Coast Highway in Laguna Beach.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

As Californians prepare to enter the seventh week of stay-at-home restrictions, signs of fatigue are becoming evident.

From the high desert to the beach enclaves of Orange County, a growing number of businesses deemed nonessential are choosing to reopen in defiance of orders from local and state authorities.

In Victorville, 24-hour fitness studio the Gym reopened Friday with an 8-by-10-foot printout of the Constitution posted by the front door. Employees changed the colors of the studio’s sign to red, white and blue and hung banners that read #GymsAreEssential and #ReopenAmerica, according to owner Jacob D. Lewis.

Lewis said he chose to reopen after hearing from members who were struggling with issues ranging from flare-ups of chronic health conditions to declines in mental health since they had been unable to patronize his gym.

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He also feels that some media outlets and government officials have exaggerated the scope of the COVID-19 outbreak to justify what he views as an overblown response that infringes on people’s personal freedom.

“This virus is political,” he said. “It comes down to our civil rights. There’s one thing that people in power forget, one thing that makes us all the same, and that’s the Constitution.”

The gym has stepped up cleanings and turned off every other piece of cardio equipment to better maintain social distancing. Steam rooms, showers and saunas are still shut down, and group exercise classes remain canceled.

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Lewis, who has been vocal on social media about his decision to reopen, said he had received death threats and ominous texts from anonymous phone numbers.

“But on the flip side, I’ve been receiving calls from around the country saying how inspiring it is,” he said.

He estimated that over the past three days, he had spoken to 200 business owners who were seeking advice as they, too, prepare to reopen.

“It’s pretty awesome to see that one person can start something,” he said.

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About 100 miles southwest, in San Clemente, self-described “surfer soul food” restaurant Nomads Canteen reopened for dine-in service at noon Friday.

The owner, Jeff Gourley, could not be reached for comment Sunday.

The San Clemente Times reported that when the restaurant first reopened, tables were spread out, and patrons appeared to be keeping their distance from one another. But later Friday, Nomads became crowded with people who had just departed a nearby protest against the state’s stay-at-home orders, the paper reported.

“We’re doing what we can do and letting people make their own decisions,” Gourley told the San Clemente Times on Friday. “That’s kind of where we’re at.”

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The restaurant has been outspoken about the reopening on its Facebook account.

On Friday, it posted a meme of a flag recalling the “Don’t tread on me” logo, except the snake was wrapped around a bottle of tequila. “Take back your freedom, go for a surf, open your business, have a cold beer with your friends,” it read.

Dine-in restaurants, along with bars, nightclubs, gyms and theaters, were told to shut down March 19, when Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a sweeping order aimed at slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus by dramatically restricting public movement. Many counties issued similar orders locally through their public health departments.

California was first to impose a statewide stay-at-home order, and experts credit that with helping the state see a fraction of the deaths of other coronavirus hot spots, such as New York.

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Still, the virus has affected California unevenly, with the densest population center of Los Angeles County home to more than half the deaths reported in the state and nearly half the cases, and some rural and suburban areas seeing much smaller shares.

That has led to tension between the state and some residents and local authorities, who say their lower case counts and death tolls mean they should be allowed to reopen their economies sooner.

In San Clemente, sheriff’s deputies on Friday visited Nomads Canteen with officials from the Orange County Health Care Agency, said Carrie Braun, spokeswoman for the county sheriff’s department.

“Our Environmental Health division was able to reach the owner, who understood that he is operating in violation of the governor’s order,” Jessica Good, public information manager for the Health Care Agency, wrote Sunday in an email. “A written warning will be issued, which could lead to permit suspension.”

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Authorities also were eyeing action against the Gym in Victorville.

City officials reported the fitness center to San Bernardino County authorities and on Friday received permission to issue a notice of violation through city code enforcement, Sue Jones, spokeswoman for Victorville, said Sunday. The notice gave the Gym three days to comply; otherwise, the county will take enforcement action, she said.

She said most establishments in Victorville are complying with stay-at-home orders, noting that city officials had canvassed more than 725 nonessential businesses over the past month and that none of them were found to be in violation until now.

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“Like so many in our community, we are appalled by the Gym’s egregious violation of the order issued by the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health,” Jones said in an email. “This violation demonstrates disregard for public health and our city and county efforts to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in our community.”

Lewis said he does not believe the county or state has the authority to take action against his business.

“They can’t force us to shut our doors,” he said. “We did it voluntarily in the beginning because they hyped it so much, but guess what? They lied to us.”

He said that if government authorities cut off his power, he’ll have a generator up and running within a couple hours. And if they issue fines, he’ll let them pile up and then mount a legal challenge in federal court.

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“I already have attorneys ready to rock that want me to do it,” he said. “What I’m saying is, I’m riding this out until we get back to normal.”


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