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It’s not a secret that plenty of restaurants across San Diego County are defying state stay-at-home orders. There’s even an Instagram page dedicated to the spots and eateries across the region that are defying public health orders and serving customers who choose to dine in.
But when I took a stroll down State Street in Carlsbad last Thursday, I didn’t need a social media page to tell me where I could sit down for a meal or a beer. Many restaurants were publicly flouting the rules by serving customers for dine-in and calling it a “peaceful protest.” (VOSD Managing Editor Sara Libby and I talked to legal experts about whether the phrase applies to restaurants violating state health orders in a recent story.)
That was before three Carlsbad city councilwomen — Cori Schumacher, Priya Bhat-Patel and Teresa Acosta — voted to increase enforcement of restaurants. The businesses have been taking advantage of temporary activation permits, which allow them to offer outdoor dining in common areas and public spaces like city sidewalks or street parking. Under the new enforcement policy, the city will work with landlords of persistent violators to bring them into compliance.
Leaders in Encinitas have made similar threats to rescind permits that allowed restaurants to offer outdoor dining on city sidewalks, streets and parking spots if those restaurants are caught breaking the rules. Some restaurants have followed the rules, but others, like The Roxy, were open for outside dining on Thursday.
The decision in Carlsbad followed a tense back-and-forth between residents who were split on further punishment of restaurants that defy health orders, and restaurant owners who largely said they needed to stay open to keep their businesses alive and support their employees.
One person said the Carlsbad Council members should know better than to let Carlsbad become “the laughing stock of North County.” Another called the move for more enforcement “Cori’s war on the Carlsbad businesses.” Another said open restaurants “will absolutely mean increased deaths from COVID.”
On the other end of the spectrum, one person told residents to think about the restaurants that have already flopped due to economic challenges brought on by the pandemic, and to think about the well-being of the restaurants in the community. Some people said there’s not enough evidence that the virus is spread through outdoor dining.
“How many businesses are we willing to lose?” one person said. “Just because San Diego and Encinitas are approaching their small businesses a certain way does not mean we have to do it the same way as them,” another said.
Many restaurant owners said their businesses can’t survive on takeout orders alone.
“This is not political,” Andy Davis, who owns The Compass and Mas Fina Cantina, said over the phone at the meeting.
Councilman Keith Blackburn voted against taking away outdoor-seating permits from businesses that don’t comply with state health orders, and Mayor Matt Hall recused himself from the vote. Blackburn said he thinks taking away temporary activation permits issued specifically in response to the pandemic could have “unintended consequences.”
The Council also voted to engage with other leaders across the county to create a more comprehensive approach to compliance with public health orders, not just for small businesses but also big box stores.
Since Jan. 8, more than half of the complaints against restaurants and gyms willfully violating health orders came from Carlsbad alone, Tanya Sierra, a spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office, told me in an email. She said since December, 29 of 32 of those reports came from North County.
I’ll be watching what happens next on business enforcements in Carlsbad and elsewhere in North County. Have tips or other curiosities? Follow and send me a message on Twitter.