Some South County businesses have been fined thousands of dollars for alleged violations of the state and local Covid-19 public health guidelines since Black Friday weekend 2020, when enforcement officers stopped offering proprietors a grace period to correct the offenses before issuing penalties.
Fines levied toward businesses in Gilroy and Morgan Hill since Nov. 27, 2020, range from $500 to more than $5,000. Some of the penalized business owners told this newspaper the citations are the result of confusion or lack of clarity in the county’s Covid-19 guidelines, and the penalties are yet another burden imposed on small businesses that are already struggling due to the pandemic. Some are in the process of appealing the fines.
On Nov. 26, Fit Republic, a gym in Gilroy, was fined $2,750 for conducting indoor operations and failing to post a social distancing protocol, according to county staff.
Fit Republic manager Edgar Velasco said this week that while county staff “made some mistakes” in their enforcement, the gym is now operating completely outdoors and requiring patrons and staff to wear masks.
On Dec. 24, Darling Nails in Morgan Hill was fined $3,000 for allegedly failing to close indoor operations and failing to post required signage, according to county staff.
A woman who answered the phone at Darling Nails this week declined to comment on the fines.
Dub Baseball and Softball in Morgan Hill was issued a fine of $5,000 on Jan. 12 for alleged unlawful operation of a business that is required to be closed for indoor service, county staff said.
A Dub Baseball staff member replied in an email that the company—which operates a variety of youth sports programs—is in the process of appealing the fines.
Most fines issued by county enforcers so far are in the lower ranges of the local Covid-19 public health “violation and fine matrix,” which lists 26 separate potential violations with base penalties ranging from $250 to $5,000 in fines.
On Nov. 27—Black Friday, the biggest nationwide retail shopping day of the year—a total of 31 stores at the Gilroy Premium Outlets were issued fines by county enforcement officers, according to county staff. Each store was fined from $250 to $1,000, mostly for two recurring violations: failure to post required social distancing protocol and failure to post store capacity signage, according to county staff.
Santa Clara County Director of Environmental Health Michael Balliet said issuing fines for alleged Covid-19 public health violations has been “very effective” in obtaining compliance among the business community. He noted public health staff try to resolve violations through outreach or education before enforcing penalties.
“The majority (of violations) are resolved through a phone call or email,” Balliet said. About one-third of businesses that have been notified of a violation opt for an on-site inspection.
Balliet added that one of the most common violations of the Covid-19 guidelines has been failure to post a social distancing protocol near the front entrance. However, those citations have dropped off countywide in the last month or two, as the county has ramped up enforcement and outreach.
‘Shock’ at $10K in fines
The Running Shop and Hops in downtown Morgan Hill has racked up perhaps the biggest tab of fines in South County. The craft beer bar has been cited for three violations for a total of $10,500 in fines, and owner Evan Jaques is “shocked” at what he sees as a heavy-handed enforcement approach that prioritizes punishment over public health.
On Jan. 6, a county inspector cited the Depot Street business for failure to close as required by an active public health order, a $5,000 fine; as well as a $500 penalty for not requiring customers to wear face coverings.
Those violations stem from a visit to The Running Shop and Hops by a county enforcement officer, who “observed three people drinking together at a table outside the door without face coverings, and another person drinking alone at a barrel alongside the business wall in a roped area near the door…,” reads the citation letter from the county.
Then on Feb. 4, a county officer visited the business again, this time citing the establishment another $5,000 for allowing customers to sit at a picnic table indoors, according to the county’s second notice of violation.
But Jaques said he thinks it’s clear that the picnic table in question meets the county’s definition of outdoor seating, as it was situated just inside an open 11-foot by 13-foot garage rollup door. Jaques said he even had an industrial fan in the back of the room, blowing toward the open rollup door, to provide necessary air flow described in the public health regulations.
The citations followed a Dec. 21 warning letter from the county’s business compliance unit, stating that officers had received complaints that The Running Shop and Hops was allowing “on-site beer drinking” in violation of an Oct. 5 public health order that ordered bars and restaurants closed for both indoor and outdoor service. The letter states that “failure to correct violations” could subject the business to enforcement action, and officers may visit the site again to monitor compliance.
Jaques said he and his staff have been trying to comply with the county and state guidelines, but he doesn’t think the county’s enforcers are acting in good faith. He said on both dates when county officers cited the shop for violations, they “showed up completely unannounced” and did not ask to speak to a manager or owner to notify them of the potential hazards.
“If the objective is to protect public health then don’t you think they should be reaching out to myself or a manager?” said Jaques, who purchased The Running Shop and Hops from the previous owner in September. “To me it seems like a revenue scheme; it’s not about correcting or addressing the problem.”
Regarding the Jan. 6 allegation—that the shop was allowing patrons to drink in an outdoor common area—Jaques said he doesn’t control where people consume beer after he sells cans, bottles or other containers to go.
Jaques thinks the county officers are taking a “hardline approach” to enforcing guidelines that are so vague they can be interpreted multiple ways.
He added that the experience has brought him “shock, extreme stress (and) disappointment.” He said The Running Shop and Hops has spent considerable funds changing the store’s layout to accommodate the new guidelines, all the while suffering substantial losses in sales since Jaques purchased the business just before the 2020 winter holiday Covid-19 surge.
“We’re doing everything we can to follow the rules,” Jaques said.