'They have little kids': Danville restaurant defies outdoor dining ban, pays thousands in fines to help employees

The restaurant has been fined $1,000 at least 13 times, but the owner says if they close his employees suffer, some who have already run out of unemployment benefits.
DANVILLE, Calif. (KGO) -- Each night that Gabe Moufarrej opens his Italian restaurant, Incontro, he knows he faces another $1,000 fine.

Incontro has been open at its Danville location for the past 10 years. It is currently open for outdoor dining, in violation of a COVID-19 health order. The restaurant has been fined at least 13 times.

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Moufarrej says if the restaurant closes, his employees suffer, some who have already run out of unemployment benefits.

"These people have mortgages, they have rent, they have car payments. They have little kids. And it's cruel to do this," says Moufarrej.

Moufarrej says he's not trying to make a political statement. He knows COVID-19 is real. He has spent $45,000 in upgrades to be COVID-19 compliant.

But he says take-out orders alone aren't enough, and that the restaurant is just breaking even with outdoor dining.

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Denis Xenos, the owner of Denis' Country Kitchen in Lodi, California, claims to have found a loophole to legally keep his small business open against the state's stay-at-home order during the coronavirus pandemic.

Some locals says if social distancing guidelines are followed, and patrons are wearing masks, they support restaurants having outdoor dining.

Crumbs is another Danville restaurant that has modified outdoor dining, but not full-service dining.

"I paid a lot of money to come (live in) Danville, have some excellent restaurants here. And I do not want to see them go out of business," shares Robert Fish, a Danville resident.

Danville Police Chief Allan Shields says he reviewed the health order with the city attorney and county lawmakers. He says the aim is not to punish restaurants. They have even implemented a progressive enforcement strategy: first to educate, then give a warning, before issuing a fine.

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"We realize this is hard, and it is hard when the rules change as rapidly as they are," says Chief Shields.

Candace Andersen, Chair of the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors, admits it's been tough for small businesses, but adds, "This is not the time to be fooling around. We are at the home stretch. We've got the vaccine."

Supervisor Andersen, whose district includes Danville, encourages residents to shop local to help small businesses. She hopes the next round of federal stimulus funding will help, too.

But she says other restaurants are following the rules. Without naming names, Andersen says one Danville restaurant is at risk of being shut down.

"It is potentially, a very real possibility that they will be shut down by our environmental health division," says Andersen, although no time frame was given.

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