Pictured: Diners in Downtown Ventura at a new outdoor patio allowed on a city sidewalk during the pandemic. June 20, 2020. Photo by Kimberly Rivers.
by Kimberly Rivers
About two dozen restaurant owners, mostly from Downtown Ventura, met with an attorney Wednesday morning, Jan. 6, saying they are nearing the breaking point for their businesses and are looking for a path forward as the virus spreads and retail businesses, allowed to remain open, welcome a steady stream of shoppers.
“We are wondering if the city council is going to help us, is the city going to be behind us?” said Jojo Ramirez, talking to the Ventura County Reporter following the meeting. He has co-owned the popular Italian restaurant Capriccio on Main Street with his husband, Justin Ramirez, for three years. He said none of the new, current or previous council members have reached out to him and he hasn’t heard that they’ve contacted any other restaurant owners either.
Ramirez and others are watching the handful of area restaurants that continue to offer onsite dining, in violation of the mandates, and are considering doing the same. But he said they are worried that if they do so, the city might close the outdoor dining areas on Main Street that the city closed off to cars over the summer to help businesses survive when the state closed indoor dining. Most downtown restaurants don’t have access to private property for outdoor dining and relied on the roadway patio areas to keep their businesses afloat.
Restaurants invested money in building the outdoor dining areas, and Ramirez said the city didn’t offer any financial assistance. If the city took that area away, “then we’d have nothing.”
The state’s current regional and tiered approach means that with the current coronavirus numbers, all restaurants are only allowed to offer take out and delivery. All dining onsite is prohibited.
Jan Holguin, owner of Casa Bella on Main Street, pointed out that while all dining areas have been closed, COVID-19 numbers continue to rise. She said it’s because people “have nowhere to go” so they are gathering at their homes, inside. “We see it, we are delivering the food to them.”
“For Christmas Eve we had a big order, 16 plates to one house….What’s the difference?” asked Ramirez, comparing that to offering outdoor dining at his restaurant.
On Saturday, Jan. 2, Ramirez filmed a Facebook Live video asking his customers what he should do — stay closed or “fight for my business.” He’s in a unique position because he has a second job in medical administration and a background as a nurse, so he understands the seriousness of the virus. The responses online to his video are overwhelmingly in favor of opening an outside dining area.
“We should be allowed to operate safely outside, we’d probably see a drop in cases,” Holguin said, emphasizing that if she thought at any time that it was not safe to offer outdoor dining, she wouldn’t do it and that her customers want the option to eat outside now.
“My phone is ringing off the hook,” with people wanting to come and eat at Casa Bella’s outdoor patio. Holguin said she understands the county and city don’t want to go against the state orders. “The state just comes down on them…and can take away money, the CARES [act] money…it is a hard decision.”
Deciding to fight for their businesses
“I’m confused about what to do,” admitted Ramirez on Tuesday, before the group met. He expressed a lack of fairness in how the restrictions are being applied to restaurants. “The line at Trader Joe’s, they are not six feet apart, TJ Maxx, the mall.” He noted that people are indoors for long periods of time, “but we can’t have outdoor dining, it doesn’t make sense to me at all.”
On Jan. 4, the Los Angeles Times reported on outbreaks in Los Angeles County at large retail stores like Target, Costco and Home Depot.
Ramirez said he’s worried for fellow restaurant owners who are older than him. “I’m 32, I’d be able to start again,” but others are older and have spent “all their life” building their restaurant and are now “about to lose it all…What hope do we have left? . . . Without my customers, we don’t have anything.”
He said he wants to see the “county fight for us.” Regarding the regional framework, he said it’s a problem because even if all Ventura County residents follow all the guidelines to the letter, numbers rising in Los Angeles County will result in Ventura County businesses having to remain closed.
Holguin joined a one-day reopening protest last month with a handful of restaurant owners. The city and county health department were notified in advance. Some of those businesses remain in open defiance of the state restrictions.
Another concern of the restaurant owners relates to the potential misdemeanor charges that could come from violating the state’s orders.
“If we get a misdemeanor, we can’t keep our liquor licenses,” said Ramirez. For restaurants, the ability to sell beer, wine and liquor is vital to their success.
“At the end of the day the county and city and supervisors and everyone needs to be going to the state every single day,” said Holguin. She described the final Ventura City Council meeting of 2020, as she was waiting on the line to speak during public comment.
“It was the Twilight Zone. [Council members were] congratulating each other . . . about their swift action during the Thomas Fire, nothing meaningful about now, nothing about COVID.”