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December 6, 2022

State reverses course, approves county reopening plan

Outdoor dining is now officially sanctioned in Santa Clara County

California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control officers finally offered an explanation for their confusing enforcement efforts in South County July 3.

However, since then the state’s public health department has granted Santa Clara County the necessary permits to allow outdoor dining—the chief alleged violation that ABC officers were investigating at Morgan Hill and Gilroy residents at the start of the holiday weekend.

County officials also announced July 7 that the state has approved Santa Clara County Public Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody’s updated health order that implements “across-the-board risk reduction measures” to combat the spread of Covid-19.

“As a result, outdoor dining can continue in Santa Clara County,” county public health staff said July 7. Cody’s updated health order will go into effect July 13.  

Some restaurant owners and staff were reportedly frightened and furious by the end of the night July 3, when armed ABC officers entered numerous establishments that were serving customers for outdoor dining. The officers told restaurant staff that they were in violation of the state’s Covid-19 social distancing and essential business guidelines, and ordered them to cease all operations, except takeout service, before the July 4 holiday rush.

ABC spokesman John Carr said the officers did not issue any citations to the local restaurants. The officers were acting on the county’s lack of state approval for outdoor dining, which has been in place at local restaurants for more than a month.

“ABC agents just told businesses in Santa Clara County that their county does not have attestation/variance yet and technically restaurants and bars that serve food in their county are supposed to be takeout only at this time until attestation/variance is approved by health authorities,” Carr said in a July 6 emailed statement. “ABC does not make a determination whether a county can reopen.”

Carr clarified that the state office did not “shut down” any of the restaurants contacted, but rather focused on advising staff of the alleged violation.

That explanation wasn’t good enough for city officials and restaurant owners, who said nobody from the state notified local authorities that outdoor dining was not permitted in Santa Clara County. Cody issued an order opening up restaurants to outdoor dining in early June, but no one from the state claimed that was a problem until the ABC officers showed up unexpectedly July 3.

“There has been much blame thrown around but ultimately we got to where we wanted to be,” Morgan Hill Council member John McKay posted on social media July 7, after he found out that the state finally granted the county’s outdoor dining variance. “I will remain angry and dismayed that our businesses and customers were put through such an ordeal last Friday night. There is no good explanation for that and assume we will never receive one.”

Mayor Rich Constantine added, “We are extremely happy this has now been resolved. However, we are still very concerned about the way this was handled by the (ABC) and the economic impact it had to our already struggling restaurants over a holiday weekend.”

The ABC’s actions July 3 didn’t seem to persuade many restaurants to pack up their outdoor dining patios. Dan McCranie, owner of Ladera Grill, vowed on July 4 to continue serving customers outdoors until he sees some “clear, definitive” prohibition of such business from state authorities.

Other restaurants in Morgan Hill that have hosted outdoor dining since June continued to do so through the holiday weekend and into this week.

“This is a combination of outrageous, unprofessional and, I think, mendacious,” McCranie said of the ABC officers’ actions in a July 4 press conference outside his downtown Morgan Hill restaurant.

City officials—including Constantine, City Manager Christina Turner, City Attorney Don Larkin and Police Chief Shane Palsgrove—attended the July 4 press conference in support of the affected restaurants.

Turner said the city council and staff have worked with local restaurants since June 5 to help them establish outdoor dining operations that were in compliance with the county’s guidelines.

The state’s July 7 approval of Cody’s latest health order comes even as Covid-19 cases continue to climb in Santa Clara County. A graph of positive cases on the county’s website shows daily totals at the end of June and early July are far exceeding those of March and April, when the state and county’s most stringent stay-at-home orders were in effect.

The June 23 tally, for example, shows the highest single-day Covid-19 case count of 193 cases. Daily totals have exceeded 100 almost every day in Santa Clara County since June 15.

Cody’s latest order, which is now approved to start July 13, applies new standards for more workplaces and industries to reopen. Gyms, hair salons and small public gatherings could resume if venues and businesses meet the county’s new standards.

State officials initially denied the county’s new proposed order the morning of July 4, before reversing course July 7 after receiving more details from the county. 

Last week, Gov. Gavin Newsom placed Santa Clara County on a “watch list” of 19 counties where Covid-19 cases are rising sharply, and where recent reopening activities could be reversed. The ABC officers who visited local restaurants on July 3 reportedly showed staff a copy of Newsom’s July 1 directive, which referred to the 19 counties.

On July 6, however, Newsom removed Santa Clara County from that list.

Carr said the July 3 ABC operation was part of a statewide enforcement effort. Between July 3 and July 5, ABC visited more than 5,800 businesses in 21 counties and wrote 52 citations for various violations of state public health Covid-19 regulations. In Santa Clara County, the officers visited 121 establishments.

In Morgan Hill, the ABC agents explained to the restaurants that the county did not have permission from the state to open outdoor dining and were “technically in violation of California’s stay-at-home orders,” Carr said. “Many business owners asked if they needed to cease operations immediately. ABC explained that they could continue with service until their regularly scheduled closing time. Agents further explained that they should not reopen to indoor or outdoor seating in violation of the stay at home orders, however, they may remain open as a take-out operation.”

Michael Moore
Michael Moore is an award-winning journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor for the Morgan Hill Times, Hollister Free Lance and Gilroy Dispatch since 2008. During that time, he has covered crime, breaking news, local government, education, entertainment and more.

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