San Diego County puts COVID-19 restaurant closures on hold after judge lets strip clubs remain open

California Connection

SAN DIEGO (AP) — A California judge on Wednesday extended an order exempting San Diego strip clubs from state pandemic-related restrictions, a setback for Gov. Gavin Newsom in his efforts to make his orders stick.

The scope of San Diego Superior Court Judge Joel Wohlfeil’s preliminary injunction appeared to extend far beyond the two clubs that sued the state to potentially all of the thousands of restaurants in San Diego County, the state’s second-largest county after Los Angeles.

Wohlfiel said it applies to “San Diego County businesses with restaurant services,” including the strip clubs, and that it exempts them from shutdowns and “any related orders” that bar live adult entertainment and go beyond protocols “that are no greater than essential” to controlling the spread of COVID-19.

The judge noted that Pacers International Showgirls and Cheetahs Gentlemen’s Club operated for five weeks during the pandemic under their own safety measures, which included 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.

Michael Workman, a spokesman for San Diego County, said county attorneys were meeting “to decipher the ruling and determine what’s next. Stay tuned.” County supervisors last week vowed to appeal any extension of the exemption for strip clubs, which the judge initially granted last month.

By Wednesday night, San Diego County released a statement saying the ruling also exempts restaurants from enforcement, at least for the time being.

“The State and the County are analyzing the scope of the ruling and discussing next steps which includes seeking clarity from the court. Until we have clarity, we have suspended enforcement activities against restaurants and live entertainment establishments. With record numbers of new infections, deaths, and ICUs at capacity, we want to remind everyone to do your part. Please don’t gather, socially distance, wear a face covering, and wash your hands,” the county wrote.

But in a statement to FOX40 sister station KSWB, the governor’s office said that while they’re disappointed in the court’s decision, “we remain steadfast in our commitment to protecting the health and safety of all Californians.”

“Our legal team is reviewing options to determine next steps,” Newsom’s office said.

Jason Saccuzzo, a lawyer for Pacers, referred to the order’s precise language when asked about its scope, saying it was “a difficult question to answer.”

Steve Hoffman, an attorney for Cheetahs, said he was “very pleased” with the ruling and had no comment on whether it extended to other strip clubs and restaurants.

“Cheetahs and Pacers will continue to operate in a manner that takes all appropriate and essential measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 while at the same time providing a means for their staff to earn a livelihood,” he wrote in an email.

The ruling, which takes effect immediately, comes after Newsom’s Dec. 3 stay-at-home order in response to a surge of coronavirus cases that has hammered hospitals across the state.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said in a “cease-and-desist” order to both clubs last week that they were violating the state’s new policy, which bars indoor and outdoor dining and prohibits social gatherings that bring together people of different households in an effort to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

Becerra wrote that he was acting on behalf of Newsom, a fellow Democrat, and the state health department and that he will pursue legal action if the companies didn’t comply.

Wednesday’s ruling followed more than an hour of spirited argument about whether state authorities overreached or acted within the law to protect public health.

“What’s going to happen next when there is some greater emergency? Are we all going to be under house arrest? Are we going to even have a Constitution?” said Saccuzzo, the Pacers lawyer. “I fear that we may end up in a country that we don’t even recognize.”

The clubs sued San Diego County in October after they were ordered to close.

Last month, a judge in another case denied a request to temporarily lift some restrictions on San Diego County restaurants and gyms. The California Restaurant Association did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Wednesday’s ruling.

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