Strip club ruling forces San Diego to pause ban on dining

SAN DIEGO — San Diego County has suspended enforcement of COVID-19 restrictions barring restaurant dining and live entertainment after a judge extended his order protecting two strip clubs from a state shutdown order and indicated the ruling applied more broadly.

County officials said in a statement Wednesday evening that they and state officials were analyzing the scope of the ruling, which took effect immediately, and discussing next steps, including seeking clarity from the court.

“Until we have clarity, we have suspended enforcement activities against restaurants and live entertainment establishments,” the county said.

Citing the “record number of new infections, deaths and ICUs at capacity,” officials, nonetheless, urged people not to gather and to socially distance, wear face coverings and wash their hands.

Restaurants, meanwhile, were trying to sort out whether they can seize the opportunity to reopen to diners.

Chad Cline, co-owner of the Waterfront Bar & Grill in Little Italy and a number of other nightlife venues and restaurants, said he was unsure what the judge’s wording meant.

“It kind of says that restaurants can reopen but the caveat there may be that someone has to be stripping, which seems so wild to me,” Cline told the San Diego Union-Tribune. ”If that’s what it takes for us to reopen our businesses — taking off our clothes, I’ll do it.”

The scope of the preliminary injunction appeared to extend far beyond the two strip clubs that sued the county and state. If so, it could lift restrictions on thousands of restaurants in the county of more than 3 million people.

San Diego County Superior Court Judge Joel Wohlfeil said his ruling applies to “San Diego County businesses with restaurant services,” including the strip clubs. The injunction exempts them from shutdowns and “any related orders” that bar live adult entertainment and go beyond protocols “that are no greater than essential” to controlling the spread of COVID-19.

The judge noted that before being ordered to close in October the clubs, Pacers Showgirls International and Cheetahs Gentlemen’s Club, operated for five weeks during the pandemic under their own safety measures — including keeping strippers 15 feet (4.6 meters) from tables, allowing no more than one stripper per stage and requiring them and other employees to wear masks.

Michael Workman, a spokesman for San Diego County, said county attorneys were meeting “to decipher the ruling and determine what’s next. Stay tuned.”

County supervisors last week vowed to appeal if the judge extended his temporary Nov. 6 injunction exempting strip clubs.

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office said in a statement that its legal team was “reviewing options to determine next steps” and was disappointed in the court’s decision, though “we remain steadfast in our commitment to protecting the health and safety of all Californians.”

Three restaurant owners, including one who owns several establishments in San Diego, said they were planning to reopen by the weekend. They did not want to be named for fear of being targeted by officials.

Angie Weber, the owner of Cowboy Star and and Butcher Shop in downtown San Diego, said she was waiting to see if officials appeal before calling her staff to return to work.

“For now we are very hopeful that the ruling will be upheld and we’ll be able to reopen with all of the safety protocols that we had previously put in place,” Weber said in an email Thursday.

Weber’s business was among two San Diego restaurants and two gyms that sued on behalf of their industries, asking that California’s four-tier system of pandemic restrictions be declared illegal. The judge in that case denied their request to resume indoor activity.

In a similar lawsuit in Los Angeles County, a judge found the health director acted “arbitrarily” and didn’t prove that health benefits outweigh the negative economic effects before issuing a ban on indoor and outdoor dining. But then the state issued its order restricting restaurants to takeout and delivery services.

Steve Hoffman, an attorney for Cheetahs, said he was “very pleased” with Wednesday’s ruling and had no comment on whether it extended to other strip clubs and restaurants.

“Cheetahs and Pacers will continue to operate in a manner that takes all appropriate and essential measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 while at the same time providing a means for their staff to earn a livelihood,” he wrote in an email.

The ruling came after Newsom’s Dec. 3 stay-at-home order barred indoor and outdoor dining and prohibited social gatherings in response to a surge of coronavirus cases that has hammered hospitals across the state.

The judge’s ruling followed a spirited argument about whether the shutdown violates the 1st Amendment, which protects naked dancing as free expression.

“What’s going to happen next when there is some greater emergency? Are we all going to be under house arrest? Are we going to even have a Constitution?” said lawyer Jason Saccuzzo, who represents Pacers.

Patti Li, an attorney for the state, highlighted the extreme scarcity of intensive-care unit beds and growing waits in hospital emergency rooms to justify what she emphasized were temporary measures.

“It really is about the entire community, the entire state,” Li said. “This is the most serious moment of this pandemic in the state, in the nation so far.”

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Associated Press writer John Antczak contributed to this report from Los Angeles.