An Orange County cafe opened in defiance of Newsom. Now it’s the center of stay-at-home resistance

Customers defy social distancing and the wearing of masks to stand in line Thursday at the recently opened Nomads Canteen in San Clemente.
Customers defy social distancing and the wearing of masks to stand in line Thursday at the recently opened Nomads Canteen in San Clemente.
(Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times)

When Jeff Gourley welcomed diners into his San Clemente restaurant, Nomads Canteen, last week for the first time since mid-March, the response was so overwhelming that he quickly ran out of food — and had to close again.

Gourley made attempts to socially distance customers by spreading out tables inside and having patrons wait on the restaurant’s sunny deck. But the eatery quickly filled with customers eager to get out of the house and return to some sense of normalcy amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We ran out of everything, down to the bare walls,” Gourley told the Orange County Register this week. “It was record-breaking. We sold every tortilla, bottle, can and every margarita.”

On Thursday, preparations were once again underway to reopen Nomads Canteen, with limited hours through Sunday. Gourley did not respond to a phone call and email requesting comment Thursday, but the restaurant has been outspoken about the reopening on social media.


“Time to get back to work USA!” the restaurant wrote on Facebook on Wednesday. “FYI we will not be taking call-in orders this weekend as our phone lines and machine are constantly tied up with supporters and haters — so far the score is 307 haters to 290 supporters, but that counts a few crazy haters calling in over 20 times ... LOL.”

Nomads Canteen is one of several restaurants across California that’s reopened in recent days, despite ongoing orders from Gov. Gavin Newsom that they offer only to-go service and that other businesses that have been deemed nonessential remain closed.

Customers and a waitress ignore social distancing and the wearing of masks on the patio at the recently opened Nomads Canteen.
Customers and a waitress ignore social distancing and the wearing of masks on the patio at the recently opened Nomads Canteen.
(Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times)

Dine-in restaurants, along with bars, nightclubs, gyms and theaters, were told to shut down March 19, when Newsom issued a sweeping order aimed at slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus by dramatically restricting public movement.

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

Recent polls show there is still widespread support for the stay-at-home order in California. Two weeks ago, 75% of people surveyed by the California Health Care Foundation wanted the order to continue as long as it’s needed.


Still, the virus has affected the Golden State unevenly. Densely populated Los Angeles County is home to more than half the deaths reported in California and nearly half the cases, while some rural and suburban areas are seeing much lower numbers.

Orange County, which is home to more than 3 million people, reported 96 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, bringing the county’s total number of cases to 3,092. The county has seen 66 virus-related deaths since the pandemic began.

These numbers have led to tension between the state and some Orange County residents and local officials, who say their lower case count and death toll means they should be permitted to jump-start their economy sooner.

“The science is clearer now,” Orange County Supervisor Don Wagner said Thursday. “We know we have problems in nursing homes. Let’s focus our efforts there. We seem to have problems in our jails and confined living spaces. Let’s deal with that and let the rest of us live our lives as best as we possibly can.”

In line with this effort, the Orange County Board of Supervisors approved a set of guidelines last month that detailed specific measures — including physical distancing, personal protective equipment and sanitation procedures — businesses must take to reopen.

Some took the measures to mean that businesses could open their doors immediately as long as they followed the county’s procedures. But the guidelines state they do not supersede any more restrictive orders implemented by cities or the state, which has not allowed restaurants to reopen.

Enforcement has proven to be an even trickier topic for businesses and local authorities to navigate.


Orange County sheriff’s deputies visited Nomads Canteen with officials from the Orange County Health Care Agency last week upon hearing about the restaurant reopening. Officials spoke with the owner, who understood that he was operating in violation of the governor’s order, according to county officials. The agency planned to issue a written warning, which could have eventually led to permit suspension.

But Wagner and fellow Supervisor Michelle Steel pushed back on the enforcement effort, issuing a statement this week that noted the agency would be “promptly rescinding all threats” and would not take enforcement action as long as the restaurant was complying with Orange County’s business guidelines.

Wagner acknowledged in an interview Thursday that the state’s rules restricting businesses reopening trumps the county’s guidelines. While the county will not enforce the state’s order, he said, there is nothing preventing the state from taking enforcement action against local businesses.

“This doesn’t give anywhere near as much help to our businesses as I might like, but we are stuck under Sacramento’s rules,” Wagner said. “I’m absolutely worried that this patchwork of rules is going to hurt some people and be counterproductive. I must admit there is the potential with conflicting state, city and county rules that people will be unsure what to do.”

County CEO Frank Kim said county restaurant inspectors are required to follow state orders, but their goal is to seek voluntary compliance through education rather than strict enforcement.

The state has made it clear it won’t stand for the uprising.

The California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control has visited multiple locations in 42 counties, including Orange, this week and warned restaurants that they could lose their state license to serve alcohol if they don’t close their dining rooms.


The agency is stressing voluntary compliance over enforcement at this point, a tactic that so far has been effective at the businesses they’ve visited, said John Carr, a spokesman for the ABC.

It is not clear if the agency has reached out to Nomads Canteen.

The reopening of some restaurants comes as the state begins to take its first steps toward loosening the stay-at-home order. Newsom announced this week that some retail stores — including those that sell books, music, toys, flowers, clothing and sporting goods — can reopen for curbside pickup beginning Friday.

It is unclear how soon rules would change for gyms, bars and in-restaurant dining.

“We are entering into the next phase this week,” Newsom said. “This is a very positive sign and it’s happened only for one reason: The data says it can happen.”