Rohnert Park restaurant owner fined $1,000 for unsafe outdoor tent amid COVID-19

ROHNERT PARK, Calif. (KGO) -- As COVID-19 cases increase with winter coming, we're seeing a new urban phenomenon.

Tent cities, or maybe 'tented' would be more accurate, and with new rules that people like Lou Kirk needs to enforce.

"Are you the bad guy?" ABC7'S Wayne Freedman asked.

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"Sometimes I'm perceived that," Kirk said.

He's the senior code enforcement officer for Rohnert Park. Yesterday he wrote what appears to be a North Bay first, a citation against Mary's Pizza Shack for not following up on a warning to provide proper ventilation inside a tent.

Cully Williamson owns the place. He thought he had complied.

"Well I had rolled some of the fabric down and left 18 inches of open air," Wiliamson said.

For that, Rohnert Park fined his restaurant $1,000.

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"The thousand bucks is a big issue, but long-term is what I'm looking at," he said. "Without outdoor dining in the winter, we aren't going to make it." Nor will his 71 remaining employees, many of whom work part-time. "This is the hardest thing I have ever been through in 40 years with Mary's."

State and county law require that three sides of a tented area remain fully open from floor to ceiling, but the written directions are less specific. Those 18 inches Cully Williamson left open at the bottom were not enough.

"I believe the City of Rohnert Park is interpreting it differently than I am interpreting it," said Williamson, looking at the form.

In the North Bay and across the state, restaurant owners say rules and enforcement should be consistent. Even Rohnert Park Mayor Joe Callinan disagrees with the citation.

"It's not about the thousand bucks," Callinan said. "It's about being fair to all restaurant owners in Sonoma County. I'm a little upset. Restaurants need some help or they won't be around by next spring."

Even Kirk sympathizes. He has worked as an enforcement officer for more than three decades.

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"My priority is public health and safety. My responsibility is to enforce these orders given to us by the state and county."

He had to write the citation, despite Williamson's civility and best intentions.

"I want to beat this thing as much as anybody else," said Williamson.

In this case, it cost him $5,000 dollars for the tent plus another thousand for the fine, and he's not alone in just trying to make a living.

"It is very complicated. Adds another level to running a business," he said.

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