Fines, citations but no compliance: How some restaurants have defied L.A. County on COVID-19
Again and again, public health inspectors returned to the Italian restaurant at the Westlake Village shopping center.
They found Novo Cafe serving diners indoors and out, despite a Los Angeles County order forbidding it during the worst wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to county records. Over and over, they handed out citations with a $500 fine.
In February, the county revoked the restaurant’s public health permit. Novo Cafe stayed open. This summer, co-owner Massimo Forti told an NBC4 news crew who filmed unmasked workers in the restaurant that he saw adhering to mask requirements as a “sign of submission.”
As of early November, Novo Cafe had been fined $86,000 for scores of citations — and none of those fines had been paid, county officials said. It had gotten more than 90 citations by the middle of November, according to the public health department.
Novo is among a small number of businesses that have tested the powers and patience of the L.A. County Department of Public Health amid a pandemic that has put new demands on its enforcement arm. Experts say that across the country, public health agencies have struggled at times to enforce such rules amid strained resources and overt challenges to their authority.
“Health departments have their hands full right now,” said Lori Tremmel Freeman, chief executive of the National Assn. of County and City Health Officials. At the same time, “public health authority is being challenged all over the country,” as many states have sought to clamp down on their powers.
Shira Shafir, an associate professor at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, said that “given the politicization” around COVID-19 rules, some businesses “will just choose to get the fine and remain open.” She added that public health agencies with limited staff and resources may weigh whether “the juice is worth the squeeze.”
“If they send out an inspector every single day, is it likely to change the behavior of the business?” she asked. “If it’s not, it could create further backlash against the health department. Not only have you not achieved your goal ... you’ve helped to foment further resentment.”
Some have questioned, however, why officials have not taken more aggressive action. “It troubles me that the county is citing some businesses repeatedly and not shutting them down,” said Kurt Petersen, co-president of Unite Here Local 11, a union representing Southern California hotel workers.
In L.A. County, as some businesses have rejected new and evolving rules meant to combat the spread of the coronavirus, the public health department has yanked permits and, in some cases, gone to court.
Under the county code, the Department of Public Health has been issuing citations of $500 a day for violations of COVID-19 health orders. Repeat violators also face “noncompliance fees” that are charged for re-inspection costs. And the county can suspend and eventually revoke a public health permit.
In many cases, those tools seem to be enough to bring businesses in line: Although more than 1,500 citations have been issued to L.A. County businesses for defying health orders tied to the pandemic, most of those businesses have been cited once or twice, a Times analysis of publicly posted county records found. Those totals do not include citations for other violations, such as operating without a public health permit.
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But a handful of businesses, including Novo Cafe, have held out even after losing a public health permit.
Earlier this month, Novo was warned that if it did not stop operating illegally, “the county will be forced to take all necessary actions,” including possibly filing a lawsuit, according to a letter from County Counsel Rodrigo A. Castro-Silva.
In the “cease and desist” letter, Castro-Silva said the restaurant had continued to illegally operate after its permit was revoked and “consistently violated” health orders, including failing to require masks for its workers. By doing so, “you have placed the health and safety of employees, customers who are dining at the restaurant, and the community at large, at risk,” he wrote.
Forti declined to comment. The restaurant owners have called the county mandates “illegal and inappropriate” in a court case against the city of Westlake Village, which revoked its permit for alcohol sales.
In a legal filing, they argued that there had not been any reported cases of COVID-19 traced to the restaurant and said they had “reasonable safeguards and measures” in place to protect employees and customers. They also argued that asking restaurant staff to enforce mask rules was like “forcing those personnel to practice medicine without a license.”
Another repeat violator was Cronies Sports Grill in Agoura Hills, which received more than 80 citations for violating COVID-19 orders between December and July, according to county records. In December, it hosted a protest on its patio against a county ban on outdoor dining that was imposed as cases surged.
“It’s not a political thing; it’s a right or wrong thing. It’s a common-sense thing,” restaurant owner Dave Foldes was quoted in the Acorn newspaper. “Let us keep our business open. Let us keep our livelihood.”
In January, L.A. County sued Cronies for violating emergency orders. It also filed suit against Tinhorn Flats, a Burbank restaurant that had defied orders to halt outdoor dining. Cronies recently reached a settlement with the county to pay outstanding citations and costs of $9,999; added penalties are on hold unless it violates health orders. The litigation against Tinhorn Flats is ongoing.
The county has also sued gyms that defied orders against indoor operations, an Agua Dulce venue accused of illegally hosting big weddings and parties and a Covina restaurant called Bread & Barley.
Public health departments were short on staff even before the pandemic, said Freeman, with the national health officials association, and typically when COVID-19 measures are unpopular, “it can be very hard for the local health department to be able to enforce it without backup and support” from elected officials.
Public health agencies are already more inclined to try to persuade people than to penalize them, Freeman added.
Angelo Bellomo, a former deputy director for the L.A. County Department of Public Health, said the agency has historically fallen short in using citations and fines to push businesses to act.
“The department has historically underutilized these tools against noncompliant businesses,” said Bellomo, who retired from the department two years ago. “To be fair, when we did elevate cases to the highest level” — to city or county prosecutors — “they did not receive the urgent attention the department believed was warranted.”
Beyond county efforts, city governments have put pressure on businesses defying COVID-19 rules: Burbank city officials erected a fence around Tinhorn Flats to stop it from reopening and revoked its conditional use permit before the restaurant was evicted this summer.
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Agoura Hills city prosecutors had pursued a criminal case against Cronies, accusing the restaurant of doing business without a valid license and making a public nuisance. Foldes told The Times he and his partners settled with the county because that was the only way the city would drop its case.
At a February meeting, Westlake Village officials said Novo Cafe had made a decision to defy the county rules, leaving them little choice but to revoke its permit for alcohol sales, which included a condition that the restaurant comply with county health requirements. Other restaurants and businesses had also suffered financially but followed the rules, Council Member Kelly Honig said.
“It shows a rather indifference to the rest of our community,” Council Member Ned E. Davis said.
Attorney James Lloyd, who represents the restaurant, argued that his clients were “following their inalienable rights to protest what they believe is an unconstitutional rule.” Near the end of the meeting, Novo Cafe co-owner Tina Pasha told the City Council that they had no choice in light of the economic pressure on their family. As she struggled to keep speaking, Forti broke in.
“We understand exactly what’s going on with the pandemic. We respect people’s lives,” he said. “We’re not criminals.” Forti and Pasha have since sued in an attempt to cancel the revocation of the alcohol permit.
Before the pandemic, L.A. County public health inspectors were already inspecting many businesses and sites, including apartment buildings and restaurants where they hand out letter grades for food safety. When the coronavirus hit, they had to juggle those existing duties and new responsibilities tied to the pandemic.
There are roughly 575 employees within the Environmental Health division — which handles inspections of restaurants and a range of other businesses — now working on enforcement and compliance issues related to COVID-19 orders, according to Robert Ragland, chief compliance officer for the Department of Public Health. The environmental health division is now handling inspections for COVID-19 compliance for all settings besides health facilities, Ragland said.
At times, it can become confrontational: The county lawsuit against Bread & Barley alleged that a public health inspector was threatened and cursed at by a representative of the Covina gastropub, who followed the inspector out and blocked the person’s vehicle with his truck. At one point, after police officers had been called, restaurant owner Carlos Roman told them he was desperate.
“You guys all got a paycheck, right?” Roman says to the officers and inspector in a video of the incident posted online.
“She doesn’t,” Roman says, referring to his restaurant manager. “The cook doesn’t.”
County officials said the health inspector faced threatening phone calls and protests at his office, leading the Department of Public Health to hire security personnel, after Roman posted to Instagram a department citation with the inspector’s information.
Roman, in turn, said in an interview that he had received an outpouring of support after confronting the inspector. The restaurant owner said he had gotten upset because the county inspector said he was going to fine them after a customer sat outside to eat after picking up an order.
“How do you expect me to police the outdoor space?” he asked.
In its lawsuit, the county said Bread & Barley had repeatedly violated the health order by hosting outdoor dining last December. Roman said he kept his restaurant open after his public health permit was suspended and for at least a few days after it was revoked but decided to resolve the matter quickly when an attorney warned him that the legal consequences could be dire.
Bread & Barley reached an agreement with the county to pay outstanding costs of roughly $4,300 and comply with health orders, with added penalties of $35,000 on hold, according to a court stipulation.
Roman said he also faced additional costs, including lost income from shutting down as he negotiated with the county over reinstating his permit.
“They’re going to break you financially. They’re going to keep issuing citation after citation,” Roman said.
Other restaurants might try to hold out longer, he said, but “it’s just a matter of time.”
Times staff writers Hugo Martin and Christian Martinez contributed to this report.
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