Mendocino County fines Fiddleheads Cafe owner $10,000 for defying local health order

Mendocino County officials have issued a $10,000 citation against the owner of a coastal restaurant for his persistent defiance of a countywide health order intended to help contain the spread of the coronavirus.

Fiddleheads Cafe owner Chris Castleman on Wednesday took steps to come into the compliance, but it’s clear he’s not prepared to do everything needed to comply with county standards for operating his Mendocino restaurant during the pandemic.

He said he still has no intention of requiring his workers to wear facial coverings, even though people who prepare, handle or serve food for sale are specifically called out in the county order requiring use of masks by anyone who enters an enclosed space with others from outside their household or social bubble.

“I’m not going to tell my employees to do anything,” Castleman said Wednesday. “That’s between them and the county. In general, the stance I have on all this is it’s about personal responsibility and personal choice. It’s not about me being a police officer.”

Public authorities strongly disagree.

The facial covers, social distancing and other simple measures required of business operators and others are a necessary tool in the fight against a highly contagious virus known to have infected 53 people in Mendocino County so far, Supervisor Ted Williams said.

“None of us want to see enforcement against local business owners,” said Williams, whose district includes Mendocino. “However, out of life and death concern for our vulnerable population, and in fairness to the other businesses we represent, compliance is not optional.”

Castleman has owned the tiny cafe for two years. He employs seven people, including a cook who would find a mask unbearable in the steaming hot kitchen, he said, and another employee with a history of domestic violence and claustrophobia who finds them unbearable.

He’s made his disdain for local health measures clear through signs posted out front of his Lansing Street business, stating in part, “Our freedom doesn’t end where your fear begins.” A newer version takes a slightly softer approach.

He said he has remained open, serving takeout food, since shelter-in-place orders went into effect in California in March and understood early versions of the county health order to give business owners and their workers the choice about wearing masks until a revised order issued May 28 spelled out the requirement for restaurant personnel.

In the meantime, when he was told that shared condiment, cream and sugar containers had to go, he complied. But he said his small business hardly allows a 6-foot separation, and he advised people afraid to be close to other people not to patronize his cafe.

This week after he was fined, Castleman completed a self-certification form required by the county of businesses operating while the coronavirus is still circulating. His earlier refusal to do so was a key violation for which he was cited.

Williams, the county supervisor, and Interim Code Enforcement Manager Trent Taylor said Castleman was rare for his refusal to comply voluntarily with the orders once educated by county personnel.

His citation was the first that Taylor was aware of under an urgency ordinance passed by the board March 4 establishing civil penalties for violations of coronavirus pandemic-related orders.

It established a $500 cap on fines for violations unrelated to commercial activity and allows for fines up to $10,000 for violations involving commercial activity.

A 24-hour notice of violation is required before its imposition. One was provided to Castleman on Monday.

The citation and maximum fine was imposed Tuesday.

Later that afternoon, supervisors voted unanimously in closed session to initiate litigation against Castleman and Fiddleheads if “other remedies are unsuccessful or insufficient to get a business to comply with the public health order.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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