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San Diego County Restaurants Exempt From State’s COVID-19 Restrictions, Judge Rules

Karina's Restaurant Group General Manager Alex Navarrete (pictured left) work...

Photo by Christopher Maue

Above: Karina's Restaurant Group General Manager Alex Navarrete (pictured left) works with an employee at Taka Sushi downtown, Dec. 17, 2020.

All San Diego County restaurants and businesses with restaurant service are exempted from enforcement of California's regional COVID-19 stay-at-home order, a judge said Thursday.

San Diego Superior Court Judge Joel R. Wohlfeil granted a preliminary injunction Wednesday that allowed a pair of San Diego strip clubs — Cheetahs Gentlemen's Club and Pacers Showgirls International — to remain open amid COVID-19 restrictions, as well as "San Diego County businesses with restaurant service ... subject to protocols that are no greater than is essential to further Defendants response to control the spread of COVID."

Listen to this story by Jacob Aere.

Wohlfeil's ruling prompted the county to seek an emergency hearing Thursday afternoon for clarification, though officials had issued a statement Wednesday night indicating the county was suspending enforcement against restaurants and live entertainment establishments.

At Thursday's hearing, Wohlfeil said, "The court's intention is that all businesses which provide restaurant service, meaning all restaurants in the county of San Diego, are encompassed within the scope of the court's order."

The county issued a statement following the hearing that read, "We expect the state to appeal, as soon as today. As we said, we will not enforce until the matter is decided. Our board meets tomorrow in closed session to determine what our next steps may be."

Karina's Restaurant Group General Manager Alex Navarrete said it's been a rollercoaster ride trying to get everyone back. "Last night when we got the word, the judge’s ruling, when we are going to open, we were scrambling, calling all of the employees, to see who wanted to come back,” Navarrete said.

Among local leaders praising the ruling were Sen. Brian Jones, R- Santee, who said, "Businesses with restaurant service are essential to our communities. Thank you to Judge Wohlfeil for acknowledging these shutdown orders are not grounded in evidence and allowing restaurants to reopen."

County Supervisor Jim Desmond, who has long advocated for businesses to be allowed to reopen, called it "a victory for the working people in San Diego County."

The ruling originated from a lawsuit filed by Cheetahs and Pacers to stay open amid county public health restrictions. Wohlfeil issued a temporary restraining order in the clubs' favor last month.

Since then, a regional stay-at-home order prohibiting both indoor and outdoor dining went into effect, limiting restaurants to takeout, pickup or delivery.

San Diego attorney Dan Eaton said the ruling could have larger implications. "Other strip clubs or restaurants in other parts of this state may very well try and use this ruling, although it’s not binding precedent, also to seek to have restrictions loosened,” Eaton said.

RELATED: Hot Spot: California Hospitals Buckle As Virus Cases Surge

Wohlfeil wrote in his nine-page ruling that the state of California and San Diego County had not provided adequate evidence tying the spread of COVID-19 or lack of intensive care unit bed capacity to live adult entertainment or businesses with restaurant service.

Attorney Jason Sacuzzo, who represents Pacers, argued Wednesday that there hasn't been a single case of COVID-19 transmission traced to either club since Wohlfeil issued the temporary restraining order in early November.

Deputy Attorney General Patty Li, representing the state, argued Wednesday that conditions involving the virus has changed since Wohlfeil's initial ruling, citing increased case and death numbers, as well as a reduction in ICU capacity in the Southern California region, which she was noted was near zero.

The ruling is at odds with another San Diego judge's finding in a separate case that denied a request from local restaurants and gyms to resume indoor operations.

In that case, San Diego Superior Court Judge Kenneth J. Medel ruled "while there may be evidence that shows a current minimal COVID-19 spread in the restaurants and gyms of San Diego County, that does not necessarily mean that restrictions in these sectors going forward are unwarranted."

However, that ruling came prior to the regional stay-at-home order that also prohibited outdoor dining.

A hearing on the request for a preliminary injunction in that case is slated for Friday afternoon.

RELATED: County Reports 2,604 New Cases 22 Deaths As Hospitalizations Continue To Rise

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