Health Department Lets Restaurants Ignore ‘Lifesaving' Mask Order

Some restaurants remain defiant and are not requiring employees or customers to wear masks indoors.

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You'd never know LA County has a strict indoor mask order when you sit down at the Novo Café, an upscale Italian restaurant in Westlake Village. Most of the workers and customers, even the owner, are not wearing masks as required by a Public Health Order.

"I believe in freedom of choice. So the mask is just, in my opinion, a sign of submission," Novo owner Massimo Forti told the NBC4 I-Team.

The I-Team documented employees and customers not wearing masks indoors at restaurants across LA County--from the trendy Escuela Taqueria near The Grove to a string of eateries in the Pico-Robertson district, including the Beverly Hills Bagel Company and the Pico Cafe.

And the I-Team discovered the Health Department is effectively allowing businesses to ignore an order that it calls "life-saving."

On July 15, LA County's Public Health Department [DPH] reinstated a pandemic order that "everyone regardless of vaccination status must wear a mask in all indoor public settings," except in a few circumstances, such as when a patron or worker is eating or drinking.

"Masking is a very important tool" to stop the spread of the infectious Covid-19 Delta variant, said Dr. Barbara Ferrer, LA County's Public Health Director.

Ferrer reinstated the indoor masking order after numerous COVID-19 outbreaks at well known LA restaurants, including Bottega Louie in West Hollywood, Firefly in Studio City, and several In-N-Out Burger locations.


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But some restaurants, such as the Novo Cafe in Westlake Village, remain defiant and are not requiring employees or customers to wear masks indoors.

"There is no proven data that it protects anybody," Novo Cafe owner Massimo Forti told NBC4.

Public health doctors across the country say there are, in fact, ample studies that now show masking prevents the spread of COVID-19.

"There is scientific data that shows masking is effective," says Dr. Robert Kim-Farley, an epidemiologist at UCLA's Fielding School of Public Health.

The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) this year listed 11 studies that concluded masking controlled the spread of COVID-19.

Dr. Kim-Farley says masking inside businesses, like restaurants, can protect workers and customers.

"An unmasked worker who is infected may not know about it, they're asymptomatic, and can spread the disease to their co-workers…who can then infect patrons," Kim-Farley told the I-Team.

The LA County Public Health Department does issue citations and fines for "lack of compliance" with health orders, including the masking rule. But the I-Team found that enforcement of the order appears spotty.

For example, the Novo Cafe in Westlake Village has been issued citations 60 times so far in 2021 for defying health orders, according to records examined by the I-Team.

But the the owner tells NBC4 he doesn't pay the fines, which he estimates now total between $85,000 to $90,000.

"I don't even count [the amount of fines] anymore," Massimo Forti said. He says he's trying to appeal the fines with the help of a lawyer.

The Health Department also told NBC4 in an email that it revoked Novo Cafe's public health permit on February 2, 2021. Yet, the restaurant continues to stay open despite not having a permit and the health department isn't stopping them.

The I-Team asked the Public Health Department to provide someone to answer questions about [the lack of] enforcement of the mask order, but the agency didn't respond to the request.

In an email, DPH said "We utilize education as the primary step in gaining compliance" with directives it calls "life-saving."

And in a public statement issued today, DPH said it's inspectors visited 1,874 businesses between August 14 and 20, and found the majority "were in compliance" with health orders.

The owners of the Beverly Hills Bagel Company, Pico Cafe, and Escuela Taqueria did speak to NBC4 and all said they'd tell their employees to start properly masking up indoors.

"I'm glad you brought this to my attention," said Steven Arroyo, owner of Escuela Taqueria, told NBC4.

"I didn't know this was a problem in my restaurant," said Pico Cafe owner Tal Glickman. He told the I-Team he'll give his employees a warning that they must wear masks indoors, and will "terminate" anyone who doesn't follow suit.

But the owner of the Novo Cafe says he won't enforce the mask order at his Westlake Village restaurant out of principle.

"Principle and the fact that everything they’re doing [DPH] is unconstitutional," Massimo Forti said.

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