This is exactly the kind of showdown that health officials had hoped to avoid, hence repeated visits to businesses in violation of health code and stay-at-home orders with an emphasis on education and voluntary compliance.
But now there is a showdown with two restaurants, Aloha Coffee & Cafe in Monterey and The Tuck Box in Carmel, where business owners have defied stay-at-home and mask-wearing rules.
Aloha Coffee's health permit was revoked on Dec. 23, and a health permit is required for a food establishment to operate. However, the coffee shop remains open to customers.
Meanwhile, The Tuck Box in Carmel has continued to serve sit-down customers both indoors and outdoors, despite all sit-down dining currently being forbidden. That prompted an action by the District Attorney's Office last week, based on violations of a court order when The Tuck Box previously violated shelter-in-place rules, seeking $20,000 in fines.
The Monterey County Health Department followed up on Tuesday, Dec. 29 by suspending proprietor Jeffrey LeTowt's health permit—a step less severe than revocation of a permit, and reversible via compliance—but on Dec. 30, the restaurant remains open for sit-down service.
"The lockdown order is arbitrary and not data-driven," LeTowt says. "It clearly didn’t work the first time. There is also that stubborn little fact that I have a constitutional right to make a living."
The DA's cases is based upon allegations of unfair business practices, meaning that when one business does not abide by the rules governing their competitors, enabling them to earn more, they gain an unfair and illegal advantage. (Health officials are working with the DA on a potential similar case against Aloha.)
At Aloha, proprietor Richard Dunnuck says he intends to sue Monterey County for discrimination, although the basis for such an action remains unclear. He says health inspectors and police have trespassed by entering his building and accuses them of harassment. (Even pre-Covid, health inspectors routinely visit businesses like restaurants, medical offices, public pools and gas stations for health inspections.)
Remaining open in defiance of stay-at-home orders has become something of a symbol in the so-called culture wars, and The Tuck Box today has signs posted in support of recalling Governor Gavin Newsom. A protester attending the weekly pro-Donald Trump rally on Sunday at Window on the Bay held a sign of support for Aloha Coffee.
Ric Encarnacion, assistant bureau chief of the Environmental Health Bureau for Monterey County, says that when a health inspector went to conduct an inspection of Tuck Box on Tuesday, that vibe was readily apparent as a customer shouted at the government employee. "A patron shouted, 'fight the power,' instead of fight the disease," Encarnacion says. "That is proof to me of this issue of misinformation that they may be contributing to, just to make a profit, while we are suffering.
"The sense of urgency is great," he says. "We can argue later on the merits of the science. But the health code is the health code."