Despite receiving 80 complaints last month that restaurants weren’t checking indoor diners for proof that they’re vaccinated against COVID-19, Contra Costa County didn’t fine or even officially warn the eateries that were breaking its rules, health officials have acknowledged.
Instead of meting out punishment, Contra Costa Health Services told this news organization in a statement it is “focusing on education to gain compliance” from restaurants that don’t ask to see vaccination cards or evidence of a negative COVID-19 test within three days.
When asked to comment about the health department’s go-easy approach, county Supervisor Karen Mitchoff said she was surprised and angered by the revelation.
Mitchoff said she and other county officials — including Health Services Director Anna Roth and County Administrator Monica Nino — didn’t know so many restaurants weren’t being fined or formally warned for ignoring the proof requirement. Roth and Nino could not be reached for comment.
“It’s unacceptable,” Mitchoff said, adding later that she looked into who had made the call not to issue fines. “I called the individual in the department and let them know I was unhappy about it.”
Mitchoff also said she would push the health department to retroactively fine restaurants that broke the rules. “I can assure you that we are not slacking off on citations,” she said. “Citations that need to be made will be made.”
In September, Contra Costa Health Services joined San Francisco County and the city of Berkeley in becoming the only Bay Area agencies to declare that restaurants, bars and gyms cannot allow customers inside unless they prove they’ve been vaccinated or recently tested. The order was intended to slow the spread of COVID-19 inside places where people breathe heavily from exercising or remove their masks to eat and drink.
It was a step that even Santa Clara County — which fined almost 400 businesses during the first year of the pandemic for violating health orders involving mask wearing, social distancing and other COVID-preventive measures — didn’t take.
Under Contra Costa County’s vaccine passport order, the health department can issue warnings to restaurants after verifying complaints, then follow up with successive fines of $250, $500 and $750 for continued violations. If a restaurant still fails to comply after that, the department can suspend its permit to serve food indoors.
Bars and gyms are also supposed to check for vaccine cards, but violations among those businesses are handled by the District Attorney’s Office, which could not immediately be reached to provide information about any penalties levied.
After fining multiple restaurants earlier in the fall and indefinitely suspending the permit of an In-N-Out Burger in Pleasant Hill for openly defying the order, health officials last month stopped cracking down on restaurants.
That doesn’t mean fines and other penalties won’t be issued again or that the health department has shifted its policy from the top down, agency spokeswoman Kim Carlson said.
She said the department’s enforcement staff has the authority to decide whether a restaurant’s noncompliance warrants a fine and in November decided to take a more lenient tact.
Reaction among restaurants to the vaccination proof order has been mixed. Some owners say they like the mandate because it’s safer for employees when everyone dining indoors is fully inoculated. Others have complained that it shouldn’t be their job to police customers.
Between late September and late October, the county issued warnings or fines to five restaurants: national chains In-N-Out and Fuddruckers, as well as locally owned Lumpy’s Diner in Antioch, MJ’s Downtown Café in Brentwood and Huckleberry’s Breakfast and Lunch in Concord.
The co-owner of Lumpy’s Diner told this news organization in early November she didn’t agree with the mandate and considered it an attack on customers’ individual freedoms.
“I don’t care to know who is and who isn’t vaccinated,” Lumpy’s Diner co-owner Gena Noack said. “I’m saying, ‘I’m not checking, because I respect you.’ ” The restaurant was fined $750 but remains open.
On Friday, a worker at MJ’s Downtown Café said “we’re following the rules” but declined to elaborate. An assistant manager at Huckleberry’s who asked to not be named said she didn’t believe the county should be fining businesses.
County health officials say although they prefer educating businesses about the importance of checking for vaccine passports as part of a unified effort to get the upper hand on COVID-19, they’re prepared to resume punitive enforcement if needed.
The In-N-Out in Pleasant Hill, for instance, will be allowed to reopen indoors only if it agrees to follow the health order, Will Harper, another department spokesperson, said in an email. Until then, it must stick to drive-through and takeout orders only.
One restaurant manager in Walnut Creek said he hopes the county continues enforcing vaccine passport rules however it can.
“We haven’t gotten (any) pushback yet,” Burma 2 manager Darryl Wong said. “Nobody gives us problems; they all understand.”
Candace Williams, the manager of Broderick Roadhouse in Walnut Creek, said the mandatory checks have made things awkward between management, employees and customers.
“It’s just been very difficult to have to ask for things like that,” Williams said, referring to vaccination proof. “We’re not trying to embarrass anybody. It’s kind of an unfortunate situation for us when we’re left to implement this, when we just want to serve people food and give them a good time.”
Source : https://www.mercurynews.com/2021/12/05/contra-costa-got-80-complaints-against-restaurants-that-allegedly-broke-covid-vaccine-check-mandate-but-didnt-fine-any/1425