Stopping by Nomads Canteen in San Clemente at lunchtime on Saturday felt a bit like jumping in a time machine and going back two months, before the coronavirus pandemic shuttered businesses across the country and changed life for everyone.
Dozens of diners sat at tables on the sunny deck or inside around the beach-themed bar, toasting margaritas and enjoying poke bowls. People stood a foot or two from each other, waiting for tables to open up. And almost no one, from the staff to the customers, wore masks.
Nomads Canteen is one of the most high-profile examples of an Orange County business that’s reopened in recent days, despite ongoing orders from Gov. Gavin Newsom that restaurants only offer to-go orders and that other businesses that haven’t been declared “essential” remain shut down to slow the spread of the virus.
“People are saying I have blood on my hands and that their grandma is going to die,” Nomads Canteen owner Jeff Gourley said of the backlash he’s received online from some people. “But I’m not forcing anyone to come here. If you don’t feel the way we do, just stay home.”
Even people who aren’t experiencing symptoms can carry the coronavirus and spread it to others, which is why public health officials are still urging everyone to practice social distancing, wear masks in public and stay at home when possible.
But while local authorities know some businesses are opening back up, and they say they’re monitoring the situation, so far there aren’t reports of Orange County businesses being fined or shut down for violating state orders.
Local and state police were active around Huntington Beach Pier on Saturday, for example, asking people to leave the beach. But no one said anything to Jamal Abdelmuti, owner of Jack’s Surfboards, which opened Saturday morning for the first time in six weeks.
“We’re not trying to be rebels or anything,” Abdelmuti said. “We’ve got bills to pay.”
Abdelmuti applied for a loan through the federal stimulus plan but hasn’t heard back. He said businesses like his, and the people that depend on them, can only hang on for so long if they’re forced to stay closed.
Other local shops never closed, Abdelmuti said. And he hasn’t heard of anyone being fined. Still, Abdelmuti said he didn’t know if reopening was the right thing to do, and he said he’ll cooperate with authorities if they come calling.
In the meantime, Abdelmuti’s staff was all wearing masks and gloves. They required everyone who came inside to wear masks, too. If shoppers didn’t have them, Abdelmuti offered them a disposable mask for free.
At Ritual, a women’s clothing boutique in San Clemente, worker Tina Gagne said the owner is a single mom with kids who can’t afford to lose her business.
Gagne said they shut down for weeks, only doing personal deliveries when regular customers requested them. Then she said they heard from a customer who had just had a double mastectomy and couldn’t fit in any of her clothes, so they opened one day just for her. Then they heard Gourley with Nomads Canteen encouraging local businesses to reopen on May 1. So Gagne said they went down to Ritual to clean and organize, then customers started showing up. Saturday, the door was open and customers were trying on clothes.
“I think people really want to feel like they are getting some sense of normalcy,” Gagne said.
Gourley announced his plans to reopen as of May 1 through a Facebook post that went up Tuesday, though he didn’t mention dine-in service. “Wake up and fight for your rights!” the restaurant said in another post Friday morning, urging other businesses to open and for people to “have a cold beer with your friends.”
Orange County Sheriff’s Department Spokeswoman Carrie Braun confirmed that their deputies accompanied inspectors with the county’s health care agency during a visit to Nomads Canteen on Friday afternoon after receiving complaints that the restaurant had violated the stay-at-home orders by offering dine-in service to patrons.
Braun could not comment on what type of action health inspectors took toward the business. The Orange County Health Care Agency could not be reached for comment on Saturday.
Gourley said he hasn’t been fined or told to shut down.
He did close the restaurant as soon as Newsom’s orders went through in March, Gourley said. But then those orders kept being extended, he said, with no end date in sight. And Gourley said simply filling to-go orders, while he’s paying on a 7,500-square-foot building in pricey Orange County, wasn’t cutting it.
Though he did get a federal stimulus loan, Gourley said it only lets him pay staff for their hourly wages and not the tips that typically make up a bulk of their income. He said he counted 78 employees and their family members who depend on him, and he didn’t want to sit back while he potentially lost the business he built with his own hands eight years ago.
So Gourley removed several tables and spaced bar stools several feet apart, reducing his capacity by about 40%. He also offered coronavirus antibody tests to all of his employees, to show if they may have had the virus already. And he gave them the option to come back. About half took him up on it.
While he’s gotten some hate mail, Gourley has also gotten fan mail from across the country. A man called from Texas on Friday, he said, and asked him to run his credit card for $100 to tip out the waitresses.
Dave Klein, 29, was at Nomads Canteen on Saturday with a drink in hand, waiting for a table with two friends. When asked about whether he was at all worried about catching the coronavirus, Klein said, “I think the virus is a crock…”
San Clemente city councilman Gene James said he neither condemns nor condones Gourley’s decision. But James said he felt sympathetic toward businesses like Nomads’ who are struggling economically, adding that Gourley had to do what was best for his family and business.
“It really speaks volumes to the fact that a business owner is so desperate that he’s willing to sacrifice his business license, his food service license, his ABC license,” said James, who has been vocal about keeping the city’s beaches open for active use.
James thinks that other businesses in San Clemente will join Nomads and violate the public health orders by providing dine-in services for patrons.
“He’s certainly the first, but he’s not going to be the last,” he said.
Meanwhile, Newsom on Friday encouraged residents to be patient, promising looser orders are “days not weeks” away so long as people don’t start congregating and creating new spikes of infections.
“If we can avoid that, then we’re going to get to the other side of this with modifications a lot quicker — and I just hope people will consider that,” Newsom said.
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Author: Brooke Staggs, Jonah Valdez