A handful of restaurants in the Inland Empire have been reprimanded for keeping their dining rooms open after novel coronavirus restrictions were announced.
Incidents included a St. Patrick’s Day party, restaurants allowing employees to use their dining rooms on break, and one that set up tables in its parking lot as a work-around, according to Brent Casey, with Riverside County’s Department of Environmental Health, who provided a list of nine businesses that were investigated after public complaints.
Lana Culp, San Bernardino County spokeswoman, identified one restaurant that kept its restaurant open with spaced-out tables.
Social distancing was briefly allowed in restaurant dining rooms when the state, counties and cities began issuing restrictions in mid-March. But Gov. Gavin Newsom’s stay-at-home order on March 19 prohibited use of dining rooms at all.
Most restaurants with complaints could not be reached for comment. Some did not answer phone calls, some phones were out of service, and at least one has closed.
In both counties, complaints lead to warnings from health officials and the possibility of follow-up visits by law enforcement officials.
Most are in compliance after outreach and education, Casey wrote in an email.
That doesn’t mean they’re happy about it.
“We’re complying with it, but not willingly,” said Diego Rose, owner of Marla’s Cocina and Cantina in Beaumont.
According to Rose, he didn’t receive any announcement or guidance from officials about dining room closures before the complaint-generated inspection. He was getting information about stay-at-home orders from news broadcasts and Facebook.
It was very different from the amount of work he had to do to get certification from the health department, or as he put it, “a little piece of paper to hang on the wall.”
Rose said he has totally transitioned to take-out orders, and that business is down 80%. To ease the pain, he’s taking advantage of the California Department of Alcholic Beverage Control’s “regulatory relief” for restaurants. It is temporarily allowing them to sell alcohol to-go, as long as it is in sealed containers.
“Ironically in a health crisis, right,” Rose observed.
Sid Hamilton, owner of Mad Madeline’s burger hangout in Old Town Temecula, said in a phone interview that he isn’t interested in selling alcohol to-go, but that it would be wasteful not to take steps to try and stay in business.
Mad Madeline’s has a large patio with a view of Old Town Front Street, which is usually bustling. Now, he said, it’s all but vacant.
The restaurant has had a string of complaints up to early this week for allowing guests to sit and eat in the parking lot, Casey wrote in an email.
If customers want to tailgate after they pick up their food, there’s not much he can do, Hamilton said.
He also learned of restrictions from news reports and social media before being cited.
Hamilton said he is considering adapting his take-out service to include food trays, like in the carhop days of old.
He called it “curbside with a little bit of a twist.”
Still, he said his restaurant is in compliance with state restrictions.
“You have to follow the rules, step by step and law by law. But nothing is written in stone.”
While open dining rooms are prohibited, officials encourage people to help out restaurants by using drive-thrus, no-contact take-out, or home delivery.
Hamilton said that restaurants that stay open provide a valuable service for people who are struggling with sheltering at home.
“You can’t just eat macaroni and cheese and bologna sandwiches.”