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Some wine country businesses in Napa Valley defy Newsom and reopen

Some businesses in Napa Valley have begun to reopen.
(Robert Durell/Los Angeles Times)

Terry Letson watched business at his Napa Valley restaurant drop by 25% over the last six weeks. With no help yet from the state, no uptick in coronavirus cases in the county and still no sign of a lifting of restrictions on his eatery before Mother’s Day — the busiest day of the year for restaurants — enough was enough.

“We’re protecting the people that are high-risk at the sacrifice of our well-being, income and livelihood,” he said. “When the cure is more damaging than the disease, we’re in trouble.”

Defying county orders, Letson, 58, reopened his Fume Bistro on Monday after weeks of following state rules and serving only takeout. The tables are set 10 feet apart, employees are temperature-checked every morning and only 45 people are allowed inside the 18-year-old establishment, which typically serves up to 100 people at a time, Letson said.

Public health officials have already visited him in person and informed Letson by email that they will attempt to shut down the restaurant by Thursday. But he’s undeterred.

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“It’s been 47 days now. At some point we need to move on a bit.”

The restaurant typically employs 36 individuals, but is currently allowing 11 people with the largest families and no other means of income to work part-time.

Napa County has reported 75 COVID-19 infections among its roughly 138,000 residents and two deaths — one of the lowest numbers in a state that has seen nearly 60,000 infections and more than 2,400 deaths.

As Gov. Gavin Newsom has announced that certain restrictions on businesses will be modified as early as Friday, counties throughout the state have pressed for faster and more liberal action amid ongoing protests to reopen the state. Some, such as Sutter and Yuba counties, reopened ahead of the state’s permission.

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“They’re making a big mistake. They’re putting their public at risk. They’re putting our progress at risk,” Newsom said during a briefing Tuesday in Sacramento about those counties. “These are real exceptions. The overwhelming majority of Californians are playing by the rules doing the right thing.”

Letson said that county leaders for Napa Valley have yet to take such steps, despite the low numbers in comparison to a hot spot such as Los Angeles County, which accounts for the majority of the state’s COVID-19 deaths. He and other business owners are instead taking action independently.

The restaurant’s reopening came as a nearby art gallery announced last week that it would reopen Monday, despite the county’s orders, so it could support the 30 artists and employees who rely on the gallery for income. Quent Cordair Fine Art encouraged other businesses to do the same.

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“We’ve risked everything; we’ve worked too hard and fought too long to bring our business to life, to keep it alive, and to grow it over the past 24 years to sit passively and watch it die for the unwillingness of some in the community to permit others to live and work on their own terms, to accept and deal with any marginal risk at their own judgment and discretion,” gallery owners Quent and Linda Cordair wrote in an open letter. The message came with a warning, “Public officials: Know that we’re prepared to risk fines, arrest or jail.”

The art space typically sees less than 10 people at a time, but is limiting that number to no more than six after its reopening. Neither Cordair was immediately available for an interview, but recently said during a YouTube livestream that while online sales continue, in-person sales are key to the survival of the gallery.

“This is life and death for us,” Quent Cordair said.

Photos shared on Twitter showed people standing outside the gallery Monday holding signs that read “Freedom is Essential” and “Let Napa reopen.”

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Letson said that residents have similarly supported his restaurant’s decision. He trusts that people who are sick will not enter the restaurant and insists that the opening is no different than large retail stores such as Target and Walmart being allowed to continue operating.

“Hospitality has completely shut down. I’m not unique in the struggle — I’m just unique in pushing it.”


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