In a special session before its regular 6 p.m. meeting, the San Juan Bautista City Council held a heated debate over current COVID-19 restrictions on outdoor dining. A motion made to reopen outdoor dining by Councilman Dan De Vries failed in a 3-2 vote, with Councilmembers Mary Edge, Cesar Flores and Leslie Jordan voting against, and De Vries and Councilman John Freeman voting for it.
De Vries’ proposal asked the council to enforce red tier (substantial) restrictions as part of the state’s Blueprint for a Safe Economy. San Benito County is currently in the purple tier (widespread), according to the state virus-tracking website, and subject to a stay-at-home order which limits food service to take-out and delivery only.
De Vries claimed that there’s been no scientific evidence that outdoor dining “produces dangerous rates of COVID-19 transmission or spread.” He contrasted this lack of proof with anecdotal evidence that the total shutdown severely hurts local business and town life.
Freeman proposed that the council examine the whole stay-at-home order and endorsed a cautious reopening plan based on his own research.
Flores supported retaining current restrictions and said that authority to change the county’s risk assessment belonged to the state. Edge and Jordan agreed, and asked City Attorney Deborah Mall about San Juan’s options.
Mall said that non-enforcement might increase San Juan’s liability, should a private person contract COVID-19 there and sue the city. Though the state hasn’t tried to sue any noncompliant cities, De Vries predicted that they would probably sue cities like Paso Robles or Solvang, which have also challenged the state’s restrictions, before suing any city in San Benito County. Still, Mall warned, “the governor said he was going to cut [CARES Act] funds to those cities” which refused to comply.
City Manager Don Reynolds urged local business owners to apply to the city for aid payments. “A one-page application and some receipts,” he said, might result in a grant from the $43,000 currently allocated for businesses.
Reynolds also said that the CARES Act funding from the state is predicated on the city’s adherence to the state’s stay-at-home order, which is stricter than the red tier.
“I personally have a little bit of heartburn about opening anything up when the widespread disease is occurring right here in our backyard,” he said.
De Vries, who officially conceded his council seat to the newly elected Scott Freels at the 6 p.m. regular meeting, argued that the cities of California were defying unworkable orders from Sacramento. He also cast aspersions on Gov. Gavin Newsom, who came under fire after attending a crowded, maskless birthday party.
Resident and recent council candidate Jackie Morris-Lopez challenged De Vries’ position.
“I hear the risk assessment being presented [in terms of] money,” she said. What about the people’s health and welfare? Maybe he needs to recognize the rest of the community, not just his friends.”
Morris-Lopez used her own primary-care experience to justify the state’s restrictions. She asked business owners to be patient for the projected week and a half remaining in the shutdown, and until the COVID-19 vaccine is widely distributed.
Tami Castañeda-Huaracha, co-owner of Doña Esther’s, warned the council that downtown San Juan Bautista might be littered with closed businesses within a month. Castaneda, who unmuted her Zoom microphone several times to interrupt speaking council members, contended that they did not know what running a business was like. She also reminded the council of the long residence and cultural enrichment that several restaurants, including Doña Esther’s—38 years—and Jardines—over 40 years—have given the town.
Fran Fitzharris of Brewery Twenty Five said that local merchants are willing to obey the city’s decisions, but added that “the emotion and the frustration that you’re seeing now comes from the fact that we really didn’t enforce these restrictions.”
Anthony Ramirez, co-owner of 18th Barrel, agreed with Fitzharris that county-by-county enforcement was aggravating. He pointed out that customers in big box stores such as Wal-Mart, Costco and Safeway do not stay six feet apart.
Both Fitzharris and Ramirez ended by pleading for the council to allow outdoor dining, though Fitzharris said that it might be best to let the three-week stay-at-home order expire first.
De Vries spoke after the vote.
“Those in favor of opening outdoor dining were John and Dan. Those against were Mary, Leslie and Cesar,” he said. “Then the city of San Juan Bautista can hold you accountable for your decision that you made tonight to deprive these business owners on Third Street of tens of thousands of dollars, saying, ‘We don’t want you to have that money. We know better than you.’”
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