Reopening California: Orange County restaurant to reopen again for dine-in service in defiance of California COVID-19 order

SAN CLEMENTE, Calif. -- A restaurant in San Clemente is once again reopening for dine-in service, ignoring statewide closures for businesses amid the coronavirus pandemic - a move the owner said is essential for the livelihood of his employees.

Nomads Canteen opened for business over the weekend, selling out of food as customers flocked to the restaurants despite restrictions.

The restaurant will follow strict guidelines, adhering to physical distancing with tables 6 feet apart. Nomads Canteen is expected to reopen at noon Thursday, operating at 40% capacity.

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The owner said not everyone is happy with the restaurant opening its doors as COVID-19 cases in the county continue to climb.

Owner Jeff Gourley said the restaurant has even received death threats.

"We've been hit with a lot of 'You're being selfish' or 'You're the best American in the world,'" he said. "None of that is why I'm doing this. I'm team driven. My team is my family. The way I operate is, when there's all these unknowns, when you have the science saying herd immunity is better or shelter-in-place, that's better - all this confusion. All I do is I crunch the numbers myself, I look at the risk and I see what's coming. The financial side of this, I look at my team and I'm not willing to walk away and let guys that have worked for me, with families that depend on me, just be hung out to dry while everybody debates what's going on."

Though last weekend's reopening prompted a visit from the Orange County Health Care Agency, which issued a warning to the owner, many county officials appear to be looking the other way on the matter.

Orange County Supervisor Don Wagner said the warning from the Orange County Health Care Agency ran counter to the county's guidelines.

"The county of Orange has guidelines that we believe are scientifically sound and medically appropriate, and so we're encouraging our businesses to abide by our guidelines while the state orders remain in effect,'' Wagner said. "It's going to be up to the governor whether he lifts the stay-at-home orders.''

Wagner has been a vocal proponent of allowing businesses to reopen and lifting health restrictions due to the coronavirus.

"Our hospital rates ... are still better than surrounding communities,'' Wagner said. And we don't urge our residents to do anything reckless, but it's time for them to live their lives again.''

He suggested that if the state leaves stay-at-home orders in place, the state can send the California Highway Patrol or the National Guard to enforce it.

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Supervisor Lisa Bartlett said, however, that when she voted for the guidelines last week, "My understanding was that the county was not recommending that any business overstep the state order, but that businesses could start getting prepared to open utilizing those guidelines that were produced at the meeting.''

Supervisor Doug Chaffee said Wagner's comments are "essentially saying if you want to open up and violate the law we're not going to do
anything about it. I'm sorry to hear it.''

Chaffee said that when proposing the guidelines last week, Wagner "was very careful to point out'' they don't supersede the state's orders.

"Now to say, who cares?' -- that's disappointing,'' Chaffee said. "My intent in voting for it was to put out guidelines to help us get ready to open up, but that businesses not essential were still not essential. We'll get there eventually.''

Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Monday that the state later this week will issue new guidelines allowing "lower-risk'' retail businesses to reopen with operating modifications, such as offering only curbside pickup.

Newsom, without naming Orange County specifically, said during the virtual press conference Monday that there was "one county'' he was "very impressed with'' in a re-opening plan it submitted to the state.

"That's the spirit of what we're looking for,'' Newsom said. "We just need a more formal process.''

The governor noted there "may be some unfortunate consequences'' for businesses that reopen prematurely. He noted that the state's Alcoholic Beverage Control department visited 81 restaurants and bars that had reopened, and all but one was shut down.

City News Service contributed to this report.

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