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Group of North Bay restaurants, wineries and hotels sue state over shutdown limits

A group of more than 50 restaurants, wineries and hotels in Sonoma and Napa counties is suing Gov. Gavin Newsom and California’s public health officer over pandemic restrictions that they say threaten the viability of their businesses.

The group, calling itself the Wine Country Coalition for Safe Reopening, filed suit in Napa County Superior Court on Tuesday, just as Sonoma County set a new local record for the highest number of monthly COVID-19 deaths, with nearly two weeks still to go in January.

The 22-page lawsuit seeks a loosening of the six-week stay-home order that now indefinitely prohibits restaurants, pubs and tasting rooms in the two counties from offering anything beyond takeout and delivery service — limits the group assailed as “draconian.”

Newsom and Tomás J. Aragón, the state’s health officer, are named as the defendants in the case, the latest in a long line to take aim at California’s pandemic-era restrictions on business activity and civic life.

“Our goal is to get the outdoor dining and outdoor wine tasting ban lifted. That is what this lawsuit is about,” said Cynthia Ariosta, managing partner of Pizzeria Tra Vigne in St. Helena, and a spokesperson for the coalition, which is also seeking compensation for unspecified economic losses tied to the restrictions, plus attorneys’ fees. “It’s arbitrary and unfair, and other outdoor and indoor businesses are able to continue to operate with little restrictions, and we are completely restricted.”

Coalition members say they have lost millions of dollars in revenue because of the stepped-up restrictions on eateries. Many spent large sums to continue to operate outdoor-only dining service until those operations were shut down across the Bay Area in early December. Ariosta estimated her restaurant alone lost about $1 million last year. Thousands of laid-off or furloughed hospitality workers in Sonoma and Napa counties are struggling to make ends meet, she said.

“The industry can’t stand it. There’s an exodus from the workplace,” Ariosta said. “If we’re not allowed to open for a few months, we’re not sure if we’ll have employees to bring back. They’re desperate too and looking for other jobs.”

Josh and Regina Silvers, owners of Jackson’s Bar and Oven in Santa Rosa’s Railroad Square, said their curtailed restaurant business is bleeding money while Sonoma County and the wider Bay Area remain stuck in the state’s most restrictive pandemic tier.

“We’re literally dying on the vine. We’re watching thousands and thousands of dollars go down the tube that I don’t have every day,” said Josh Silvers, who joined the restaurant coalition involved in the suit. “It’s so convoluted and sporadic and not based in science what they’re doing. Sonoma County (COVID) numbers keep going up and we’ve been closed how long? So it’s not us.”

Public health authorities have stressed that gatherings and close contact with others — indoors and outdoors — can increase the risk of transmission, especially at a time when coronavirus infection rates have spiked, far surpassing the surge last summer, when COVID-19 deaths in Sonoma County peaked at 43 people in August, followed by 42 people in September.

Due largely to more widespread community transmission, Sonoma County is enduring its deadliest month in the pandemic, recording at least 48 COVID-19 deaths through Tuesday, equating to 20% of the 240 people who have died of the disease in the county since March. Every day, roughly 250 more people in the county test positive for the virus, according to county data.

Business restrictions included in regional stay-home orders are meant to safeguard individuals and the wider public from infection while limiting the strain on already taxed hospital resources, state officials said.

“We will vigorously defend against this lawsuit challenging public health orders implemented to save lives and prevent the regional medical system from collapsing, so all residents can access lifesaving treatment,” Jesse Melgar, a spokesman for the governor, said in a written statement. “We are confident the court will uphold the order, as have numerous courts that have recently considered similar challenges.”

The coalition behind the suit also includes the Farmhouse Inn in Forestville, Guiso Latin Fusion in Healdsburg, Fumé Bistro in Napa, Evangeline restaurant in Calistoga and Duchamp Hotel in Healdsburg. The owner of Fumé Bistro briefly flouted the indoor dining rules last summer before being shut down by the county, and has again served patrons in defiance of the stay-home order earlier this month, according to the Napa Valley Register.

Will Seppi, president and chief operating officer of his family’s Healdsburg-based Costeaux French Bakery, also joined the restaurant coalition and signed onto the lawsuit. His four fast-casual restaurants and wholesale bread business have survived using an $800,000 federal Paycheck Protection loan, but have still lost millions of dollars over the 10 months of limited operations and shutdowns, he said. Earlier in the pandemic, he laid off more than 60% of his 125-person workforce. Restored jobs have left him with about 80 employees, many working only part time while outdoor dining is prohibited.

Seppi called for more detailed regulations that would allow restaurants and related businesses to safely reopen.

“It’s unfortunate we have to go down this road,” he said of the coalition’s lawsuit, “but we need our voice heard, and are doing it in a collective manner with hopes that opens up the door. I firmly believe in the hospitality industry, and we’re just looking for opportunity to do things safely and serve our communities.

“I look at my employees and former employees right in the eye, and they want to work,” he added. “They have rent to pay, food to put on the table. They need that opportunity, and restaurants seemingly provide good jobs for people and unfortunately we’re hurting those who can least afford to be hurt with jobs being taken away or not being made available. That to me is the travesty of the whole thing.”

Staff Writer Martin Espinoza contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @kfixler.

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