Enough is enough: Napa business owners break coronavirus shelter-in-place orders and reopen

A handful of business owners in Napa threw open their doors in recent days in violation of state and county shelter-in-place orders, saying six weeks without an income was too long and it was time for officials to relax the rules.

A restaurant, a gun and outdoor gear store, a dog groomer and an art gallery were among the businesses to resume operations in the wine country city, challenging the mandated coronavirus closures with unlocked doors and blinking open signs.

“Public officials: Know that we’re prepared to risk fines, arrest, or jail,” said Quent and Linda Cordair, owners of the Quent Cordair Fine Art gallery in downtown Napa in a letter to the community last week announcing the reopening. “We’re pursuing resources for any necessary legal challenge, up to the Supreme Court if necessary.”

The gallery reopened on Monday with no immediate repercussions from officials, with about 60 potential customers coming through, said Linda Cordair. Masks were required and provided if necessary at the front door.

“We had a good day,” she said Tuesday. “There was a lot of local support and some found items they wanted to take home with them.”

City and county officials said Tuesday that they had contacted Quent Cordair to educate the owners about the local stay-home order and ask them to close the gallery. The city has not issued a citation, but that may happen if the owners refuse to close.

Napa County public health officials said they are aware of a few businesses that have re-opened prematurely and they are “currently looking at options of how to handle the situation.” They expected to deliver a warning letter to a “non-compliant” restaurant on Wednesday.

The county health officer, Dr. Karen Relucio, was not available for comment Tuesday. But she spoke before the Board of Supervisors at a meeting Tuesday morning, during which at least one board member sharply criticized businesses that were opening early.

A sign asks customers to properly social distance while they dine at Fume Bistro in Napa, Calif. Tuesday, May 5, 2020. A handful of businesses in Napa have made the decision to begin reopening their dining rooms at a limited scale ahead of shelter-in-place orders.

“I’ve been heartened by how well our community has responded to that” shelter-in-place order, said Supervisor Brad Wagenknecht. “But I have seen some of our members in the community make themselves a criminal and not following the orders for the health of our community. And I have to express my disappointment in that.”

Relucio said during the board meeting that she plans to revise Napa County’s stay-home order this week to more closely match the somewhat looser restrictions in Gov. Gavin Newsom’s statewide directive. That could allow retail shops to open for curbside sales as early as Friday, and create a path for more businesses to open soon, she said.

The Cordairs said that given the low number of coronavirus cases in the county and no imminent crisis it was “past time to start reopening the local economy.” Napa County had 75 cases and two deaths as of Tuesday — the lowest numbers in the Bay Area. But its case counts have fluctuated widely over the past two weeks.

The gallery owners encouraged other businesses to join them.

For the most part, it appeared few had. The vast majority of stores and services remained closed throughout the city. Sidewalks were mostly deserted Tuesday and parking was plentiful — an unusual scene for the tourist destination on such a sunny spring day.

Ahmed Alimusa, owner of Small World Cafe, said he had heard some businesses and restaurants were reopening and he didn’t blame them. But for now, caution tape would continue to cover his tables inside.

He was serving take-out only.

“I want the community to be 100% safe, no sickness whatsoever with this virus, then I will release my tables,” he said. “I want everyone to come in with a mask and enjoy their food at home.”

First Street is seen empty in Napa, Calif. Tuesday, May 5, 2020. A handful of businesses in Napa have made the decision to begin reopening their dining rooms at a limited scale ahead of shelter-in-place orders.

Fellow restaurateur, Terry Letson, however, decided to join the Cordairs in their effort to reopen the economy.

The owner of the restaurant Fumé had been doing take-out only since the mandated closure in mid-March, but on Monday evening, he guided patrons to seats and handed them menus.

Re-opening wasn’t a spur of the moment decision, Letson said. He had been keeping tabs on infection rates and watching other states allow restaurants to serve customers again.

He removed about half the tables inside and on the patio to maintain social distancing and removed all items, like condiments and other common items, from the tables.

He had received a few complaints, but mostly support, he said.

Customer Toby Gewertz was among the supporters, sitting at the bar Tuesday afternoon, no mask on, waiting for his lunch order to arrive.

“It’s hysteria,” Gewertz said of the closures. His advice: “Be sensible, take responsibility for yourself.”

If people still don’t feel comfortable sitting in a restaurant, that’s OK, Letson said. But on Monday night, the patio was full, with a few patrons inside as well.

“I feel we’re at a point that it’s time to do some thing and do it responsibly,” he said. We’re offering everything we can for the customers to feel comfortable.”

As of early Tuesday afternoon, he had yet to receive a visit from city or county officials, but figured at some point he would.

A county health official did visit René Bassett, owner of Dickey’s Barbecue Pit near downtown.

The eatery had been allowing customers to sit outside at tables, spaced 15 feet apart, but the official told him that wasn’t allowed, so he pulled the tables back in.

The restaurant is take-out only, with about a quarter of the revenue it would normally get right now.

“They’re killing us with this,” he said. “I don’t know how much more we can stand.”

Sweeney’s Sports, just down from Dickey’s, was also open, serving customers who lined up to buy fishing bait or to inquire about rifle scopes at a folding table set up at the entrance.

The employees declined to comment on store’s scofflaw status, saying the manager was not available.

Fume Bistro owner Terry Letson enters his restaurant in Napa, Calif. Tuesday, May 5, 2020. A handful of businesses in Napa have made the decision to begin reopening their dining rooms at a limited scale ahead of shelter-in-place orders.

Also in apparent violation of shelter-in-place orders was Scoobi Doo’s pet grooming, which had quietly reopened on Friday. The owner had posted the state guidance for essential businesses on the front window, arguing their services contributed to the health and well being of pets.

Then she flipped on the blinking “open” sign and turned on the clippers.

Customers had urged them to open, said Sue Chesbrough, an employee and mother of the owner. Many of the dogs are so matted, they had to be shaved, she added.

They require masks and only allow one customer in the shop at a time. They accept online payments to avoid personal contact.

“We just said we’ve got open,“ she said. “We want to pay the rent and pay our employees and mainly help our customers.”

Jill Tucker and Erin Allday are San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: jtucker@sfchronicle.com eallday@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @jilltucker @erinallday

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