ENCINITAS — Five months into the COVID-19 pandemic, Encinitas businesses are increasingly facing closure, struggling to protect employees from the virus, grappling with maskless customers and navigating county health regulations.
Shouldered with the additional responsibility of policing their own customers’ mask-usage, many businesses (specifically the food and beverage industry) operate in fear of a COVID-19 outbreak among staff and the onslaught of hard decisions that follow.
Kris Buchanan, owner of the restaurant GoodOnYa and vice president of Encinitas 101 Mainstreet Association, spoke to the Coast News about mounting challenges facing business owners in the age of coronavirus.
“We could all get back to normal life if we did one thing and that is pull your mask up,” Buchanan said. “Just pull it up when you’re within six feet of someone. Is that so much to ask so we can get our economy and lives back together?”
On multiple occasions, GoodOnYa has experienced issues with confrontational customers demanding service but refusing to wear a protective face covering, resorting to verbal abuse and threats towards employees, according to Buchanan.
Buchanan recalled a local lawyer threatened to sue the organic eatery for violations of the American Disabilities Act, claiming to have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, allegedly restricting his ability to use a mask.
“If you truly have (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) during a pandemic, should you even be outside, let alone in a busy restaurant without a mask?” asked Buchanan.
Currently, face coverings are required as part of county’s public health order, however, according to San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, zero citations have been issued in Encinitas, Solana Beach or Del Mar.
According to Lt. John Boyce of the Sheriff’s North Coastal Division, law enforcement’s current role with regard to facial coverings is limited to “educating the public and gaining compliance.”
“We have a business to run and bills to pay, schedules to make and food to order,” Buchanan said. “We don’t have time to police customers. People need to take individual responsibility,” “They want to get back to normal, but they don’t want to do what it takes to get there.”
Paula Vrakas, owner of the restaurant The Roxy, says mask compliance has slowly improved since re-opening, though not drastically.
“Memorial Day weekend was a nightmare to be honest,” Vrakas said. “The sheer amount of policing of masks, how to teach our customers the rules and keeping them under control was hard on our staff.”
For both restaurant owners, their problems aren’t limited to social distancing and mask compliance. In the last two weeks, both restaurants had employees test positive for COVID-19.
After learning of the diagnosis, both restaurants closed their doors, publicly announced the positive COVID-19 test, provided testing for all employees and conducted a deep cleaning of their establishments.
“It was a hard decision to immediately close,” Vrakas said. “We didn’t have to, but we did. We didn’t feel it was responsible as a business in this climate to continue having our staff present without receiving their COVID test results yet.”
Buchanan also quickly closed the restaurant, basing her decision on kindness and respect for the community. But she noted that not all businesses have followed the same protocols.
“We let our customers know because if they care for any elderly or small children and came in during the period the employee was working, they may want to get tested,” Buchanan said.
“But I know for a fact that there are businesses in Encinitas that have had COVID positive employees and they haven’t closed down or let the public know because they’re afraid of being publicly shamed,” Buchanan said. “Technically they don’t need to. It’s legal.”
TO DISCLOSE OR NOT TO DISCLOSE, THAT IS THE QUESTION
In San Diego County, health regulations do not require businesses, including restaurants, to inform the public or shut their doors if an employee tests positive for COVID-19.
In an email sent to businesses on July 2, the county’s Department of Environmental Health laid out four recommendations for businesses should an employee contract COVID-19.
Businesses are instructed to notify the DEH, “self-close” for any number of hours to conduct a deep disinfection, determine if any staff was in close contact with the infected employee, and review the facility’s COVID protocol with staff and ensure all precautions are being followed.
Speaking to the Coast News, Donna Durckel, a communications officer with the county’s Land Use & Environment Group, attempted to clarify the matter.
“While [fully] closing down is not a requirement, it is recommended to enable a facility to more easily conduct an additional disinfection,” Durckel said.
However, businesses have no legal responsibility to the public to declare a positive case, even if that business is a restaurant and the individual is a chef or waitstaff handling food in a kitchen.
“Yes, we could’ve legally opened our doors and pack [The Roxy] with music and people, making money hand over face because we’d be the only ones doing it, but it’s just not responsible nor safe,” Vrakas said.
After learning of their first positive employees, both owners at GoodOnYa and The Roxy paid for their entire staff to receive testing — all of whom were negative.
“We’re doing everything we can to be honest and good to our community,” Vrakas said, “But then you have other places that aren’t doing any of it. What’s the point of one place doing it but not the rest? Customers go between restaurants and it just continues to spiral out of control.”
Local businesses who voluntarily announce a positive case, run the risk of being publicly shamed and losing customers in a time where business and customers are scarce.
In early June, The Henry, a popular restaurant in Coronado, had an employee test positive for COVID-19. Under the law, the establishment’s owners followed the county’s regulations. But The Henry remained open and never informed the public or the DEH of the positive case.
News of COVID-19 at The Henry, coupled with its lack of transparency, quickly spread on Facebook groups over Memorial Day weekend, sparking anger from Coronado residents accusing the restaurant of “putting profits over lives.”
On July 6, The Henry publicly apologized, announcing a second employee had tested positive for COVID-19 and the business would close “until it could go through [safety] protocols, all of which mirror the San Diego Health Department’s and CDC guidance.”
After its public acknowledgment, it is unknown whether owners of The Henry enforced social distancing protocols and protective face coverings. However, the company’s owners followed legal protocols, but still faces possible closure.
Irene Puyn, executive director of Encinitas 101 Mainstreet, reiterated the challenges facing businesses with customers and North County’s rising COVID numbers.
“What frustrates me is when businesses are trying so hard to be compliant and go by the rules and just survive and then their own customers act really disrespectful,” Puyn said.
“If the public doesn’t shape up then these businesses will be forced to close again,” Puyn said. “This second closure might be the one that ends them for good because I will tell you after the whole pandemic settles down, downtown Encinitas will look very different. “This isn’t political. It’s just a matter of being human and kind to each other.”