61ºF

Appeals court blocks San Diego County restaurant openings

Full Screen
1 / 14

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Owner Ted Caplaneris, left, and waitress Sandy Dooley handle orders at The Old Townhouse, a 45-year-old institution in San Diego's Ocean Beach neighborhood on Friday, Dec. 18, 2020. They immediately resumed indoor dining when a judge on Thursday, Dec. 17, cleared the way for restaurants in the state's second most-populous county to ignore Gov. Gavin Newsom's stay-at-home orders. (AP Photo/Elliot Spagat)

SAN DIEGO – A California appeals court on Friday blocked a judge’s order allowing San Diego County restaurants to resume indoor and outdoor dining, keeping Gov. Gavin Newsom’s stay-at-home edict in full effect.

A three-judge panel's brief order gave no explanation and came almost immediately after the state asked for emergency intervention. Two strip clubs were given until Wednesday to ask the appeals court to reconsider.

The decision came only two days after a judge authorized all restaurants in the county of more than 3 million people to reopen on their own terms. It marked the biggest victory yet for opponents of California’s public health orders but proved short-lived.

The state on Friday asked the appeals court to immediately step in, saying the scope of the judge's order far exceeded what the strip clubs sought when they sued in October. Lawyers said the state health care system was “on the brink of collapse” with no intensive-care beds available in Southern California.

“In the midst of the worst surge in the COVID-19 pandemic ... a single trial court judge has unilaterally thwarted public efforts to avert that looming catastrophe, by issuing an injunction that allows all restaurants in San Diego County to reopen without any restriction, contrary to the orders and judgment of the State’s top health officials,” lawyers for the governor wrote in their filing with the state’s Fourth Appellate District.

Jason Saccuzzo, a lawyer for Pacers Showgirls International, said he was disappointed and would continue fighting California's “illogical and unconstitutional orders.” The clubs — Pacers and Cheetahs Gentlemen's Club — will ask the appeals court early next week to reconsider.

Sacuzzo said he was given no opportunity to address the appeals court and told Pacers' staff that the club would immediately close.

“This is a huge blow to them right before Christmas, as well as for all restaurants in San Diego, in what has already been a very tight year for them financially given all the uncertainty caused by the ever changing orders of Governor Newsom,” he wrote in an email.

Amid the rapid-fire developments, San Diego County reported a record 3,611 new confirmed cases Friday. California registered 300 coronavirus deaths and more than 41,000 cases Friday after a record 379 deaths and more than 52,000 cases Thursday.

Only hours earlier, eggs, waffles and burritos flew out of the kitchen at The Old Townhouse, a 45-year-old institution in San Diego’s Ocean Beach neighborhood that immediately resumed indoor dining when the judge cleared the way for restaurants to reopen.

Other eateries in the neighborhood known for its laid-back surfer vibe remain closed, illustrating the difficult choice faced restaurants as they weigh whether to reopen amid the legal uncertainty.

The decision to reopen was easy for The Old Townhouse, which spent more than $5,000 on safety measures including plastic shields between indoor booths and tents on the neighborhood’s palm tree-lined commercial drag for outdoor seating.

“It was a great relief because I have a hard time paying the mortgage and paying my bills,” said owner Ted Caplaneris, who heard from industry contacts that larger restaurants and chains were less likely to reopen because it involves more planning and preparation.

The family-owned business pays no rent and reopened with a “skeletal crew” only during prime hours of 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., Caplaneris said. Business was still only about 25% of normal.

Superior Court Judge Joel Wohlfeil said Wednesday that the state failed to show restaurants and strip clubs contributed to the spread of the virus or shortage of hospital beds.

“These business establishments provide sustenance to and enliven the spirits of the community, while providing employers and employees with means to put food on the table and secure shelter, clothing, medical care, education and, of course, peace of mind for they and their families,” he wrote.

In his ruling, the judge noted that before being ordered to close in October, the two strip clubs that sued operated for five weeks under their own safety measures, including keeping strippers 15 feet (4.6 meters) from tables, allowing no more than one stripper per stage and requiring them and other employees to wear masks.

Hours after the injunction was issued, officials suspended enforcement of restrictions barring indoor and outdoor dining and live entertainment in the county of 3 million people.

Notorious Burger owner Brian Gruber said he felt like he was giving an early Christmas gift to his employees when he called them back to work Thursday.

Business thrived as diners returned to his mobster-themed eatery in the beach city of Carlsbad, up 200% from the previous week when his restaurant was restricted to takeout and delivery services.

“I’m hoping for some sort of sanity in the system,” Gruber said as he prepared for a second-day of on-site dining at his restaurant, which leaves doors open and requires patrons to wear masks and socially distance as they eat indoors and outside.