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Larry Himmel Foundation to aid eateries hurt by COVID-19, even paying fines

Diners take in a meal on the patio at Princess Pub & Grille on Monday, Dec. 21, 2020 in San Diego, CA.
Diners take in a meal on the patio at Princess Pub & Grille in San Diego on Monday. Outdoor dining is supposed to be shut down across the county under state orders intended to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
(Sam Hodgson/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Restaurants throughout county still serving indoors and outdoors despite county prohibition

A nonprofit named after the late San Diego humorist Larry Himmel has offered financial aid to restaurants struggling during the COVID-19 crisis and is even willing to pay fines levied against them for violating a health order.

“Should they need some assistance to pay for anything, for improvements they had to make for compliance or to take care of their inventory or employees, we’re asking restaurants to tell us their story, and we will provide assistance based on their needs,” said Dave Sniff of the Larry Himmel Foundation. “If their needs happen to include a fine, we’re open to supporting that.”

Sniff said restaurants could apply for assistance at the foundation’s website, https://www.larryhimmelfoundation.org/.

By offering to pay fines, Sniff said the foundation is trying to get them out of a bind, not encourage them to violate the order against in-person service.

“We’re not encouraging people to be defiant,” he said. “We’re just offering help should they need it. We’re not going to be rewarding irresponsible behavior.”

The foundation may find itself busy. From Oceanside to the south end of the county, restaurants are continuing to serve customers on patios and indoors in apparent violation of a health order that went into effect Dec. 7 and was slated to last at least three weeks.

The state-issued order affects San Diego and other Southern California counties, and restricts restaurants to delivery and take-out service only. Having endured weeks of restrictions earlier this year that resulted in many businesses closing permanently, some restaurant owners have opted to stay open and risk a $1,000 fine for each violation.

San Diego County spokesman Michael Workman said some restaurants have been fined, but did not say how many.

Restaurants in Carlsbad and Oceanside offered various levels of service Monday, from indoor sit-down dining to take-out-only meals, in response to the changing and sometimes confusing rules for COVID-19 safety.

Several places in Carlsbad’s downtown Village were serving lunch to patrons seated on outdoor patios, including Garcia’s Mexican Restaurant, Vigilucci’s Italian Restaurant, and the Coyote Bar and Grill.

A sandwich sign standing outside The Compass restaurant in the Village Faire Center said, “We are exercising our constitutionally protected right to peaceful protest while serving food and beverage.”

Inside, busy waiters hustled from table to table serving lunches and drinks.

“It really just boils down to ... we are at a point now where we would be laying off our staff of nearly 70 employees right before the holidays,” said Andy Davis, owner of The Compass for nine years. “We’re not sure our business could survive another closure.”

Restaurant employees all agreed at a meeting about two weeks ago they would rather stay open and face the consequences than close and be laid off, he said. They wear face coverings, maintain social distancing, and sanitize surfaces frequently.

A sign outside The Compass says the restaurant is open as a "peaceful protest" of county orders.
(Phil Diehl)

“I know it’s (the virus) is very real,” Adams said. “I’m not insensitive to the pandemic. That’s the reason we stress our safety protocols.”

He’s been contacted by Carlsbad police who tried to “educate” him, and nine days ago he received a cease-and-desist order from the county health department, he said. Still, he intends to remain open.

“This doesn’t come from a place of defiance,” Davis said. “This comes from a sense of survival.”

In Oceanside, Johnny Manana’s on Mission Avenue near the beach was serving people on the outdoor patio. A sign on the sidewalk advertised a Monday special of $4 margaritas.

Nearby, the Hello Betty restaurant was serving take-out food only, but some customers were eating their meals at the outdoor tables with the manager’s permission.

Craft Coast Beer and Tacos, a new Mission Avenue brewery that opened just three months ago, was serving sit-down customers at high tables among the tall stainless steel tanks. A manager said business there was good, but he was trying to stay “low key” about it.

At Breakwater Brewing, on North Coast Highway, no service was available, only take-out food, but people were eating their take-out meals at the indoor tables as well as outdoors.

“People are grateful that we’re kind of pushing those boundaries,” a worker said. “I’ve been in the restaurant business for 20 years ... and I never thought we’d be at a place like this. It’s pretty scary. There’s a lot of stress ... a lot to worry about.”

For restaurants trying to follow or even keep track of the rules, the past several days have been confusing.

On Wednesday, San Diego Superior Court Judge Joel Wohlfeil ruled that the county could not enforce an order restricting restaurants from in-person service. The ruling came as a surprise, as it came as part of a decision to a lawsuit filed by two strip clubs protesting restrictions on live entertainment.

On Friday, the 4th District Court of Appeal put the restrictions back in place after siding with the state, which had argued that Wohlfeil had overreached his authority.

Making things just that more confusing, the county Board of Supervisors met in closed session Friday and agreed to also appeal most of Wohlfeil’s decision, but said they now were OK with outdoor dining.

A press release from the Larry Himmel Foundation stated that an average of 800 small businesses are permanently closing each day across the country, but it’s unclear how many restaurants have closed in San Diego County because of issues related to COVID-19.

At the beginning of the pandemic, California Restaurant Association officials projected that as many as 30 percent of California restaurants would close without significant government aid. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act approved in late March kept the wolves at bay for a while, but most of the program’s forgivable Paycheck Protection Loan money had been spent by restaurateurs by October.

Sharokina Shams, vice president of public affairs for the state’s restaurant association, said now it seems that the 30 percent estimate may be too low. A member survey released earlier this month by the National Restaurant Association — which reported the permanent closure of more than 110,000 restaurants since March — found that 43 percent of California restaurateurs said it’s unlikely they’ll still be in business six months from now without a federal relief.

— Gary Warth and Phil Diehl are reporters for The San Diego Union-Tribune

— U-T staff writer Pam Kragen contributed to this report.


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