State inspectors have determined the vast majority of restaurants in Kern County have closed indoor dining operations in compliance with orders put in place by Sacramento early last month to limit the spread of COVID-19.
The California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control reported Thursday that only five of 1,522 Kern restaurants contacted since July 2 were cited for allowing indoor dining. That's a local compliance rate of almost 99.7 percent.
"Considering the enormous challenges the business community has had to deal with, compliance has been extraordinarily high," department spokesman John Carr said by email. "Statewide, ABC agents have made over 29,000 site visits and issued 108 citations throughout California since the beginning of July." Those figures point to a statewide compliance rate exceeding 99.6 percent.
Only July 1, Gov. Gavin Newsom responded to rising coronavirus infections in Kern and more than a dozen other California counties by halting indoor operations at restaurants, bars and movie theaters. Similar restrictions went into effect statewide less than two weeks later.
Carr said the focus has been on education over enforcement and that the agency has tried to be accommodating by making allowances such as takeout alcohol and supporting restaurants' ability to expand outdoor service.
Through Thursday morning, the agency had issued a total of six citations to five restaurants in the county. All were accused of offering indoor dining in violation of the governor's order. They are:
• Taqueria Tampico, 725 Main St. in Delano, cited July 4;
• Jarritos y Mariscos Los Juanes Mexican Food, 373 Bear Mountain Blvd. in Arvin, cited July 5;
• Zebra Bar & Grill, part of a gentlemen's club at 2763 Sierra Highway in Rosamond, cited July 9;
• Los Panchos, 2309 Brundage Lane in Bakersfield, cited July 13 and then again four days later; and,
• The Bank Sports Lounge, 431 North St. in Taft, cited Monday.
Los Panchos manager Carlos Pinton said Thursday he had been unaware of Newsom's early July order closing indoor service at Kern County eateries.
"I don't know. I didn't listen to that one," Pinton said, adding that he pays little attention to social media. He said the government's changing orders have been hard to follow.
Since being cited, he said, Los Panchos operates strictly outdoors with six tables set in a beautiful patio.
"Everyone's trying to survive," he said. "We should get together all of the restaurants and protest this."
The owner of The Bank Sports Lounge, Dennis Schertz, said the day his restaurant was cited it was operating primarily for pickup and delivery. The only customer dining inside was a special-needs person eating out of a to-go container, he said, adding the temperature outside that day was 103 degrees.
Schertz said business has been slow lately and that "as a business owner this is the most trying time I've ever seen."
"We're going to have to really rethink what we're doing as business owners, as patrons, as a society," he said.
Carr followed up Friday to dispute Schertz's account, saying by email five people were sitting at The Bank Sport Lounge's bar counter when inspectors arrived and that one additional person was seated away from the counter near a window.
He added that the ABC is sensitive to safety and health concerns as well as the economic pain caused by COVID-19.
Carr said the agency's citations can follow two different tracks: disciplinary action against a restaurant's license and, separately, misdemeanor criminal charges filed with the Kern County District Attorney's Office, including in cases where follow-up inspections show the restaurant continued to violate state orders after being warned.
"When misdemeanor citations are written, they are given to either the owner or the manager of the business where the violation occurred. The citations are misdemeanor crimes for the individuals," Carr wrote.
It is left to the District Attorney's Office whether to prosecute the misdemeanors after ABC forwards the citations, he wrote, noting that misdemeanor citations typically range from $100 to $1,000 — "however, a judge decides that."
In the case of disciplinary action by the department against a restaurant's liquor license, Carr stated, the licensee is afforded due process.
"Business owners have a right to request a hearing before an administrative law judge to present their case," he wrote. "ABC penalties for violations of the law range broadly. They could be a fine, a suspension or even revocation in a case depending on the track record of the business and whether there have been multiple violations of the law."
Editor's note: This story has been amended to include ABC's response to Schertz's statement that only one person was seated inside his restaurant when inspectors arrived.