Walking along downtown Visalia on a Saturday evening, you’ll find that the awnings and barriers outside of restaurants designed for outdoor dining haven’t moved. But the customers definitely have.
Just follow the trail of discarded masks and you’ll find at least 11 different restaurants in the area that are now serving their customers indoors.
Tulare County is one of 52 out of 58 counties in the most restrictive Purple Tier because of its with widespread COVID-19 transmission. The state has banned all indoor dinning and closed all bars in counties in the Purple Tier.
And according to Carrie Monterio, Public Information Officer for the Tulare County Health and Human Services Agency (HHSA), the county has a “long way to go” before that changes.
But that hasn’t stopped restaurants and bars from bringing business back inside, because this indoor dining revival isn’t just isolated to downtown Visalia.
Restaurants in the Packwood Creek shopping center, like Javi’s Tacos and Good Times Cafe, have also opened their indoor dining areas to the public; Mooney Boulevard’s iconic pizza parlor, Howie & Son’s, has done the same.
More recently, Tahoe Joe’s has abandoned their large outdoor patio and moved business back inside.
Saving Staff, Following the Pack
“As you look around more and more restaurants are opening up inside,” Mike Fligor, owner of Fugazzis, said.
Fligor owns six Fugazzis across Tulare County. He was one of the many local owners that shut down his restaurants for six months during the early onset of the pandemic. When the state lifted the shutdown and limited dining to outdoor only, Fligor obeyed the mandates and moved his dining tables outside.
“We tried to be the good boys,” Fligor admitted.
But as Christmas neared, Fligor began to notice that more and more of his competition were moving their tables back inside. This was difficult to watch because Fligor had lost significant profit last year thanks to the pandemic. To make it worse, he also lost nearly half of his staff because they couldn’t wait any longer and had to find work elsewhere.
“I wanted to do what was right,” he said. “But as I looked around, I knew if I didn’t open up that we wouldn’t survive … I said enough was enough and opened up.”
Fligor added that several of his employees were not getting unemployment and that returning to indoor dining was his way of helping them out.
Keith Korsgaden, owner of the popular downtown restaurant and bar Crawdaddy’s, had similar reasoning for moving his business back inside.
Like Fligor, Korsgaden initially tried to move his dining services outside. He set up a barrier, set up tables and an awning. But when the city limited his ability to set up propane heaters outside and prohibited him from using tents because they were an “obstruction,” Korsgaden realized he would lose business without a way to protect his customers from the dropping temperatures outside, and that would start to affect his ability to give his staff paychecks. He moved dining back inside.
“The moment it got cold I felt it was my moral responsibility to not throw [my employees] out on the street,” Korsgaden said.
Sheriff, Police Departments Leaving Enforcement to the State
The move to indoor dining has not gone unnoticed by the county or concerned residents. According to Nilsa Gonzalez, deputy director of public health and director of environmental health for Tulare County Health and Human Services Agency (HHSA), the agency has received “quite a bit of complaints” regarding businesses since the start of the pandemic.
State leaders have left it to local law enforcement to deal with businesses violating Governor Gavin Newsom’s restrictions, Gonzalez said. City police departments and the Tulare County Sheriff’s Office would be the only ones that would enforce keeping restaurants outdoors, aside from state-lead strike teams.
However, Gonzalez also said that “nothing” has been sent over to law enforcement, neither at the city or county level.
While HHSA has received upwards of 200 complaints against 80 different businesses in the county, those complaints were forwarded to state officials instead of being handled at the local level, Carrie Monteiro, HHSA’s Public Information Officer, said.
Fligor said that’s been his experience as well.
“The county has gone to the health department and said we’re not doing anything. The sheriffs’ [department] and police are not doing anything,” he told the Voice.
The decision to sidestep local law enforcement, at least according to Gonzalez, is a way for Tulare County organizations like the HHSA to take a more supportive, rather than punitive, role.
“Our role is to try to provide support and guidance so that they (restaurant- and bar-owners) can become compliant and try to assist them in their direction, but it’s ultimately up to the business owner.”
This support usually takes the form of walking through the facility with the owner to provide official feedback on implementing virus control measures. The free service is a part of a new pilot program and available upon request through the Tulare County Environmental Health Department.
No Consensus on Masks
Although Tulare County agencies like the HHSA have offered their guidance to local businesses to help with virus control, there has been an alarming lack of safety measures among some businesses.
One of the most stark examples is at Visalia Brewing Company (VBC), a popular bar in downtown Visalia. VBC is often congested with bar-goers during the weekend, making it nearly impossible to keep an appropriate distance.
And entering VBC with a mask will get you a room full of odd looks, because not a single patron nor staff wears one.
Crawdaddy’s is the same with an establishment at near-capacity with maskless diners, dancers and bar-goers.
“I don’t believe the masks are working,” Korsgaden said when asked about the lack of face coverings. “We don’t have any rules here. We serve adults that are free to make their own decision.”
Korsgaden doesn’t seem to be alone in this sentiment.
Local realtor and 2020 Tulare County Supervisor candidate Brad Maaske also believes everyone should decide for themselves what safety measures to take.
“I think each business and patron can make up their own mind what they are comfortable with,” Maaske said. “I believe the public can choose.”
Maaske also stated that the people frequenting these establishments are the least likely to get hurt, because they are generally a younger crowd.
“They get it and they get over it,” Maaske concluded.
However, the director of the Environmental Health Department disagrees.
“We have to think about others because you can still spread it to someone at high risk,” Gonzalez emphasized. “The sad reality is that there have been too many COVID deaths, deaths that could have been avoided. We really need to lean into a lens of empathy and think of others that are high risk.”
It’s for this reason, that more conscientious restaurant owners like Fligor have taken extensive virus control measures at their restaurants.
According to Fligor, he spent thousands of dollars on a top rated ventilation system, has mandatory personal protective equipment (PPE), takes employees’ temperatures everyday and makes his staff fill out COVID questionnaires, and keeps his dining tables 15 feet apart.
“I know I can keep my restaurants clean and safe and our employees protected,” he said.
Other indoor dining establishments like the Cellar Door seem to be taking similar measures to keep their customers and staff safe. According Gonzalez, these are the kind of measures that reduce risk and keep people safe.
“The more measures you take, the safer you and your staff and customers will be and the more it contributes to decreasing the risk of viral spread,” she said.
And while establishments like Crawdaddy’s do sanitize daily according to Korsgaden, they continue to weather outbreaks with a sense of indifference.
While speaking to the Valley Voice in his restaurant, Korsgaden pointed to people sitting down in the bar area and said, “COVID, COVID, COVID, COVID,” until finally pointing at himself, “COVID. We’ve all had it.”
Korsgaden also admitted he has had employees catch the virus at his restaurant. And when asked what he did for them after they caught the virus, he said he gave them a simple reply:
“Be back in two weeks.”
The State Cracks Down
Whether you are a conscientious restaurant owner with considerable virus control measures, or a down-to-the-core rebel concerned about constitutional rights rather than social distancing at the bar, you can be certain that the state has a ticket with your name on it.
State enforcement strike teams do not discriminate and they have paid both types of business owners frequent visits, the most unfriendly of them usually being a visit from the Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC).
Korsgaden has been contacted by the ABC and given the option of paying fines. But he doesn’t seem to be very concerned about it.
“Why would I pay a fine if I’m not guilty of anything?” he figured. “If it’s good enough for the governor to have dinner indoors, then it’s good enough for my people.”
Besides, business has been good for Crawdaddy’s. According to Krosgaden the restaurant sales have “never been bigger”.
Fligor has also been threatened by state agencies like the ABC. The threats range from removal of licenses to $10,000 dollar fines and the shutting down of his restaurants.
Unlike Korsgaden, the threats carry more weight for Fligor because Fugazzi’s doesn’t get the kind of traffic that Crawdaddy’s does, thanks to virus control measures and limited seating.
“We’re just trying to make enough money to provide a livelihood to my people,” he said. “And I’m happy getting by right now. I am delighted that we are just getting by.”
Fligor does share a little disdain for the state, though.
“The bottom line is [state officials] are still getting a full paycheck every week,” he said. “They don’t have to worry if their business is going to fail. They say they care, but they don’t know until they are in our shoes.”
One of Fligor’s biggest concerns is the long term implications of the state taking down his business. He wonders if he’s going to have any money left to get him through retirement, to pay bills or provide for his employees.
Porterville Standing Out in Enforcement
Fligor expressed gratitude that both the city and county have not been enforcing the mandates from the state, something he says was not the case with his establishment in the City of Porterville.
“Porterville has done everything in its power to not work with us,” he said.
According to him, the city has been against Fligor since day one, fining his business up to $1,000 dollars a day for having indoor dining until he was forced to shut down his restaurant in Porterville.
Porterville Mayor Monte Reyes says the fines are a way of achieving compliance without physically enforcing the restrictions laid out by the purple tier status, and that it is a part of a system Porterville has developed to help local businesses prevent liability issues related to the virus.
“We think about the safety for businesses as well. When the dust clears people look for liability. Victims are going to look for answers and why it occurred,” Reyes said. “For me, protecting business from liability is just as important as protecting people from the virus.”
With that said, the City of Porterville is not indiscriminate in their approach. Enforcement is handled on a case-by-case basis and determined by the number of complaints submitted through the myPorterville app.
The app has a variety of services, one of them is granting citizens the ability to report local businesses for safety violations. Unlike Visalia or the county, the City of Porterville is working in tandem with the fire and police departments to enforce the restrictions once complaints have been received.
Rarely are they the first ones to head to a business, though – the city’s code enforcement officers are primarily the first to be sent to a business, Reyes said.
“The first step is not the police department, because there are so many things that they do,” he said.
Once code enforcement has been notified, they then visit the site and confirm if the report is accurate. This could end with a warning or something in writing, according to Reyes.
But as the complaints and enforcement documentation increases, the fine increases, potentially ending with a situation that Fligor was in before his restaurant in Porterville shut down.
“We usually achieve compliance by those means; there is rarely a situation where we have to physically stop,” Reyes said.
When Porterville’s enforcement of the restrictions was compared to that of Visalia’s and the county as whole, Reyes made a point to recognize the city’s distinct position in Tulare County and its ability to serve their community in its own way.
“Porterville is very unique and is often on its own on how it takes care of its problems, being one of the largest cities that’s not on a major highway,” he said. “I think we tend to have an idea of what locally is appropriate.”
Reyes admitted that not everyone agrees with the actions the city has taken and recognizes concerns about freedom, but he believes that something of a consensus among Porterville residents is being made, and that it’s leaning in the direction of virus control.
“It was completely understandable that people would think these mandates have been limiting freedom, but as we have more and more losses it changes minds,” he said. “I now think we’re at a place of equilibrium. We are somewhat unified as a community, so we can outlast the pandemic and not let it tear us apart.”