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Editorial: ICUs are full and people are dying, but, sure, open the strip clubs

Neon lights on the exterior of Cheetahs Gentlemen's Club
A judge has allowed adult live entertainment venues, including Cheetahs, to remain open despite the state’s stay-at-home order.
(Cheetahs)

In less than 24 hours, California hit two regrettable milestones, tallying the most COVID-19 deaths in a single day and a record number of new cases. The available space in intensive care units in Southern California dipped to 0% of capacity, forcing hospitals to scramble to find the additional beds and staff needed to care for the surge in seriously ill patients.

Meanwhile, in an apparent bubble in San Diego, a Superior Court judge said it was A-OK for strip clubs to open for business, despite California’s stay-at-home order. He cleared the way for restaurants throughout the county to resume serving at least some diners as well.

In what world are strip clubs considered an essential business? No wonder Californians are so befuddled and frustrated with the pandemic closures. They are bombarded with conflicting messages across all levels of government.

Gov. Gavin Newsom and state health officials have ramped up closures in a desperate attempt to slow the coronavirus’ spread and relieve pressure on increasingly packed hospitals. This month, the state created a new system for determining when closures would be ramped up, focusing on hospitals’ ability to care for the most acutely ill or injured patients. As ICU availability decreased, the state declared, certain businesses would be required to close and residents asked to stay home.

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In San Diego, restaurants are allowed to offer only takeout food. Social gatherings with people outside a single household are prohibited, and nonessential indoor businesses are supposed to close. That includes bars, gyms, hair salons, concert venues — and, yes, strip clubs.

But San Diego County Superior Court Judge Joel R. Wohlfeil on Wednesday ruled that live adult entertainment venues did not have to abide by the state’s closure order. He granted an injunction requested by two clubs, Cheetahs Gentlemen’s Club and Pacers International Showgirls, that had been sent cease-and-desist orders by Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra this month.

This was the second time Wohlfeil sided with the strip clubs. Last month he granted an injunction allowing the two businesses to stay open despite county closure orders because adult live entertainment is “constitutionally protected speech” — even though the county’s restriction wasn’t content-related in any way. That differentiated his decision from that of another San Diego County Superior Court judge, who had sided with public officials and rejected a request by restaurants and gyms to resume indoor operations.

In his ruling Wednesday, Wohlfeil went further. He exempted strip clubs from the state’s stay-home order and barred closures of San Diego County businesses providing “restaurant services” as long as those businesses followed health and safety protocols that “are no greater than is essential” to control the spread of COVID-19.

According to Wohlfeil, the state and county had not provided evidence that strip clubs or restaurants that have adopted safety protocols — like having dancers wear masks and maintain social distancing — present any risk of spreading COVID-19. He noted that the club owners said there had been no cases traced to Pacers and Cheetahs.

Sorry, your honor, but it’s a fool’s errand to look for data on how each COVID patient contracted the virus. Most people interviewed after they test positive for the coronavirus have no idea how they became infected. Instead, public health officials rely on broad guidelines to craft policies such as the one that says activities in enclosed spaces that involve the removal of protective face coverings, such as dining and drinking, heighten risk.

We’ve consistently supported a scientific, data-driven approach to pandemic responses that identifies sources of infection spread. And the science says that infections spread much better indoors, where air doesn’t circulate as well.

As of Thursday afternoon, county officials and businesses owners were still trying to figure out what exactly Wohlfeil’s ruling allows. Can restaurants reopen for indoor dining? Outdoor dining? It’s hard to tell what the judge meant by precautions that are “no greater than is essential.”

Meanwhile, state and county officials are expected to appeal the ruling, as they should. We understand why businesses shuttered by the pandemic-related orders are desperate to stay open. But continuing to gather groups of strangers indoors only helps the virus do its insidious work, guaranteeing that the restrictions they’re defying will have to stay in place even longer.


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