ORANGE COUNTY, Calif. — The beach life in Orange County is almost what it was last year: complete with midday surfing, outdoor eating, and not very many masks.
While California’s regional stay-at-home order has blockaded restaurant revenues for some, other owners have gone about business as usual. With little to no enforcement tools, cities have few ways to stop them.
Costa Mesa Mayor Katrina Foley blames the disorder on the governor’s office and its failure to effectively roll out a plan local municipalities can follow. Each week sees new highs in positive coronavirus tests, deaths, and decreases in hospital capacity.
“This is the problem with the way that the health orders are applied,” Foley said. “There are no enforcement mechanisms or tools.”
There have been 51 reported deaths in Orange County since Sunday, all COVID-19 related. More have been hospitalized, with Intensive Care Unit capacity dropping by 9.5%.
But many businesses are just trying to survive, and restaurants are feeling the impact of the stay-at-home order. Many local eateries burned through savings during the first shutdown and found more money to refit for outdoor dining.
Brad Avery, the newly appointed mayor of Newport Beach, calls the efforts “crucial” to businesses. He doesn’t condone open bars or clubs, but restaurants, he says, need to make an income.
“It’s extremely crucial. This is the time of the year where they greatly depend on sales,” he said. “I don’t think there's scientific proof that, following the guidelines, it is unsafe.”
Avery said he’s been told the Orange County Sheriff's Department won’t enforce the stay-at-home order. That office, however, has no jurisdiction over municipalities like Newport Beach or other city governments. The Orange County Health Department has not been making COVID-19 related visits either, with its authority limited to food safety.
“At the end of the day we as individuals have to judge what we’re willing to take on,” Avery said. “I don’t think I’d be shopping inside if I had any underlying conditions.”
Avery said he believes the coronavirus is spread by gatherings of people who forgo masks and not by restaurants that follow protocols.
Some restaurants have said there’s no data to support the shutdown of outdoor dining that follows social distancing protocols.
But Foley said with the poor rollout of the stay-at-home order, restaurants need to close down outdoor dining to prevent hospitals from being overloaded.
Her city is trying to get all business owners on board with a shutdown, but some businesses have openly defied the order, like the bar The Wild Goose Tavern.
“We have no legal authority to go in and shut the business down. We can fine, we can pull conditional use permits, and we can contact the agencies at the state level that authority,” Foley said. “The social contract is eroding. It’s just the wild wild west. People have decided what rules they’re going to follow, which ones they’re not going to follow, and the rest of us are suffering the consequences.”