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Some Orange County leaders, restaurant owners strike defiant pose against stay-at-home order

Demonstrators protest the stay-at-home order at Triangle Square in Costa Mesa.
Valentina Molli, center, and Lindsey Lobianco, right, who work in the restaurant and cosmetic industries, respectfully, protest the stay-at-home order at Triangle Square in Costa Mesa on Monday.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Orange County officials and business owners are actively campaigning against a stay-at-home order mandating Californians halt non-essential business and travel starting Monday, calling the rules too punitive and impractical to enforce.

In a demonstration Monday outside Costa Mesa shopping complex Triangle Square, a contingent of small business owners, restaurateurs and supporters rallied against parts of the mandate that would force restaurants to stop offering outdoor dining to patrons.

Alex Petrosian, owner of La Vida Cantina, said he feels restaurants are being unfairly targeted by the new coronavirus restrictions, which make provisions for retailers to continue to operate at 20% capacity, while “essential” operate at 50% capacity.

“It’s not fair that my employees are not deemed essential and cannot provide a living for their families,” Petrosian said. “We feel we can be responsible and provide for our employees without increasing the risk.”

Petrosian is one of several local restaurant owners who say they will continue offering outdoor dining, despite restrictions against it. Another is chef Andrew Gruel of Slapfish in Huntington Beach.

Gruel said Thursday in a video on Twitter he’s already spent a small fortune on plexiglass dividers and outdoor heating lamps in an attempt to comply with ever-changing orders, without compensation. He explained his decision to continue offering outdoor dining.

“There is zero scientific evidence that proves outdoor dining is contributing to a rise in [coronavirus] cases,” he said. “I can go on a plane. I can go to Walmart. I can go get a pink cock-a-too for my Christmas tree, but I cannot go and dine outdoors in a restaurant — screw that, we’re staying open.”

California Department of Public Health officials announced Saturday Southern California’s regional ICU bed availability had dropped below 15%, triggering the closure of personal care services and all indoor and outdoor dining at restaurants in the affected areas, including Orange and Los Angeles counties.

The new Southern California stay-at-home order will last a minimum of three weeks. Monday marked the first day that the latest restrictions have been in place.

State officials reported Monday that California has seen a 69% increase in COVID-19-related ICU admissions in the past 14 days, leaving the statewide ICU bed capacity at 14.2%. Throughout Southern California, only 10.9% of ICU beds were available, although Orange County’s ICU capacity was slightly higher, at 18%.

While schools were allowed to remain open Monday, non-essential retail businesses were to limit capacity to 20%, while cardrooms and casinos, museums, zoos and aquariums, movie theaters and wineries were to close immediately. The mandate is to last three weeks, at which time officials will review cases further.

“We know that these various restrictions are a hardship for people,” California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly said of the stay-at-home orders in a news conference Monday. “But we know some of them are required to make sure we get through the surge as quickly as possible.”

Several county officials have criticized the order for lumping Orange into a region with 10 other disparate jurisdictions, some of which have higher infection rates and COVID-19 hospitalizations, and for causing undue hardships on area business owners.

Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes confirmed Saturday deputies would not enforce the mandates.

“Compliance with health orders is a matter of personal responsibility and not a matter of law enforcement,” Barnes said in a release. “Orange County Sheriff’s deputies will not be dispatched to, or respond to, calls for service to enforce compliance with face coverings, social gatherings or stay-at-home-orders.”

Orange County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Michelle Steel — recently elected to the 48th U.S. Congressional District — said Friday the lockdown was not based on any clear standard or science.

“The governor has been clamping down on our residents’ ability to provide for themselves and their families for weeks, with no evidence it has slowed the spread,” Steel said in a statement, adding the mandate would only worsen unemployment and rates of depression.

“The governor and state health officials should focus on protecting the most vulnerable in our communities and stop these sweeping orders that harm all of us,” she continued.

Restaurant owners like Petrosian and Gruel are informing customers through social media they will defy the order and continue outdoor dining. Under the banner #OpenSafe, some explained their decision-making process.

Pro-business demonstrators at Costa Mesa's Triangle Square on Monday.
Demonstrators protest the stay-at-home order in Costa Mesa.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

“Please consider the moral dilemma we face,” read a post from the owners of Memphis Café in Costa Mesa, where 85% of employees have already been laid off. “We…have made the difficult decision to stay open for outdoor dining. We will continue to be diligent and follow all safety protocols with your safety our utmost priority.”

Petrosian, who purchased La Vida Cantina in June during the pandemic and employs 85 employees, said the site’s spacious outdoor patio helped the restaurant survive previous dining shutdowns. Last month’s curfew, which forced businesses to close at 10 p.m., was a bit of a blow but nothing compared to the latest closure.

He came to Monday’s demonstration to rally alongside other business owners facing similar difficulties.

“I think we’re going to make a stand,” he said. “Hopefully, there’s strength in numbers.”

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