Restaurants and other businesses failing to comply with public health orders requiring masks and social distancing will soon face fines and may even be forced to shutter operations, based on a vote Tuesday by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.
Supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Janice Hahn co-authored the motion calling for a fine the first time businesses are out of compliance and pulling permits for repeat offenders.
"The recent spike in cases and hospitalizations is very, very serious and jeopardizes our ability to care for people who get sick," Kuehl said. "This motion says, 'Business owners, please take this seriously. You are part of our community. Act responsibly, and if you won't, we will take action. The first time we will fine you. The second time, we will shut you down.'"
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Kuehl said she had visited restaurants where owners were willfully ignoring clear orders to separate diners by six feet and require all staff to wear masks and protective shields while serving diners.
In addition to anecdotal evidence, Kuehl pointed to public health inspections during the last weekend in June, when 49% of bars and 33% of restaurants were found not adhering to physical distancing protocols indoors and roughly half of workers at both types of locations were not wearing the mandated face coverings.
Tens of thousands of restaurants, bars, retail stores, gyms and other businesses in Los Angeles County will be covered by the motion.
The board asked Barbara Ferrer, the county's public health director, to report back in 14 days with a plan for fines. It suggested that fines may be variable based on occupancy as well as the level of noncompliance, but did not suggest specific amounts.
The board also called for a protocol to be set that as soon as a business has been fined once, it will be subject to having its permit revoked as early as a second visit.
The motion also seemed to suggest a wide-ranging crackdown, with the board asking its lawyers to determine whether county employees outside the health department could be authorized to assess fines.
Hahn said the board had hoped businesses would comply voluntarily, but said she saw many blatantly disregarding the public health orders.
"We want every business to reopen safely. We had hoped we could rely on voluntary compliance, but it is clear we will need to enforce the health orders," Hahn said. "We think it is time to give the Department of Public Health the authority to fine or even shut down businesses that are not complying with the health order, and I urge business owners to take all necessary steps to protect their workers and customers and avoid any of these consequences."
Supervisor Kathryn Barger singled out the restaurant industry, calling the noncompliance "a complete and utter failure on the part of that industry."
Barger said she was especially disappointed given the hard work by restaurant industry members on the county's Economic Resilience Task Force to develop protocols everyone could reasonably be expected to follow.
She said the threat of shutdowns would be much more effective than fines, and reinforced why the health orders exist.
"One week of not being in operation is far more severe than a financial penalty ... it sends a stronger message," Barger said. "The virus is still here. It is highly contagious. I think this is something we have to learn to live with and learning to live with means social distancing, masks and washing your hands."