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L.A. County Health Department investigating ‘first responder’ party at Sassafras Saloon

Bottles hang over the bar at Sassafras Saloon
Bottles hang from a rotating mechanism over the bar at Sassafras Saloon, a Southern-based bar built from a former townhouse imported from Savannah, Ga.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles County’s top public health official announced an investigation into a party thrown for “first responders” at a Hollywood bar over the weekend that seemed to fly in the face of social distancing requirements as coronavirus cases continue to rise in Southern California.

Barbara Ferrer, director of the county’s public health department, said both her office and the state Department of Alcohol and Beverage Control would be investigating the July 31 event at Sassafras Saloon on Vine Street.

“We had inspectors out there the very next day. As many of you know, that place is shuttered and closed for business. The owners have said they only opened for that private party,” Ferrer said. “There is really zero tolerance for having indoor parties at your business places.”

News of the party drew outrage after a video obtained by the website Knock L.A., which is affiliated with progressive activist group Ground Game L.A., showed several men saying “yeah” outside the bar after they were asked if they were there for the “LASD party,” referring the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. A second video appeared to show people inside dancing to loud music.

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“Whether it is a private or public party, you’ve potentially created a lot of exposures, and the possibility that that moves into the community would be a very unfortunate place for us to be right now as everyone else is working so hard to reduce the rate of transmission,” Ferrer said.

A person with knowledge of the event, who spoke to The Times on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, said staff members at the bar had been told that a party involving the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department had been booked for Friday night. The Sheriff’s Department has denied it had anything to do with arranging the party and said Saturday that none of the men who identified themselves in the video were employed by the agency.

A review of county payroll records by The Times did not turn up the names of any of the three men who identify themselves in the video as Sheriff’s Department employees, though one man’s name is similar to that of a Los Angeles Police Department employee.

The LAPD said Monday it was reviewing whether any department employees were at the gathering. A spokesman for the city attorney’s office said Monday that complaints about the event had been referred to the health department.

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The Sheriff’s Department, however, published a tweet Monday referring to reports connecting the incident to the agency as a “hoax perpetrated by social activists.”

Sassafras is operated by the 1933 Group, which owns a number of popular Los Angeles cocktail bars, including Idle Hour in North Hollywood, the Bigfoot Lodge in Atwater Village and the Highland Park Bowl. In a statement issued Saturday, the group said the “gathering was booked by an individual who wanted to honor a group of first responders.”

The restaurant group denied the event was organized by the Sheriff’s Department and said it could not confirm if personnel from that agency or the LAPD were in attendance. A spokeswoman for the group declined to say how many people attended or what Sassafras was paid to host the event.

“We did everything possible to provide our staff and guests with ample outdoor spaces that completely adhered to current safety precautions and social distancing expectations,” the restaurant group said in response to videos that showed people partying inside the venue.

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“Unfortunately, there were a number of guests that did not comply. We unequivocally do not condone this behavior and have no intention of agreeing to additional private events, charitable or otherwise, until the state allows.”


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