California Booze Regulators Seek Swift Sanctions Amid Virus

The new proposed regulations take a tougher tone even as the state is relaxing rules for sit-down dining in select counties.

Jay Esopenko, owner of the cheese, wine and charcuterie bar Union Larder, wears a face mask while interviewed during the coronavirus outbreak in San Francisco, Tuesday, May 12, 2020.
AP Photo/Jeff Chiu

California’s bar and restaurant regulators are seeking emergency powers to immediately crack down on businesses that refuse to follow state rules intended to slow the spread of the coronavirus,

“Bad actors are gaming the system,” the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control said in its filing this week. “Because they see an impending death sentence for their business on the horizon, they have no reasonable incentive to correct their behavior and abide by the rules.”

The new proposed regulations take a tougher tone even as the state is relaxing rules for sit-down dining in select counties. Bars and restaurants elsewhere can only sell alcohol in sealed containers for takeout, and it must be sold with food.

The pending regulations would allow the department to immediately but temporarily suspend or limit licenses while the normal disciplinary process continues. Businesses could still appeal regulators’ emergency decisions to Superior Courts.

Under the current rules, businesses can remain open while they fight the sanctions through administrative appeals and the courts, “profiting for as long as they can with an absolute disregard for the law,” the department said.

The California Restaurant Association did not immediately comment Wednesday.

Modoc, Sutter and Yuba counties last week allowed businesses to reopen despite the threat of state sanctions. Supervisors in Stanislaus County this week unanimously voted to not spend county money enforcing the state’s restrictions.

“The ends don’t justify the means to what we’re doing right now,” Stanislaus County Supervisor Terry Withrow said Wednesday. The enforced isolation is causing its own mental and economic hardships, he said, while the county’s infections and deaths have been mainly tied to a few coronavirus hotspots.

El Dorado County, east of Sacramento, was one of the first counties that have permission to more swiftly reopen businesses, including sit-down restaurants. But county spokeswoman Carla Hass said it would be up to state regulators to crack down on state licensees who violate safety requirements, while county officials would only seek to educate rule-breakers.

State regulators have tried to work with the industry to allow flexibility, department spokesman John Carr said Wednesday. “The goal is to get people back to work, but to do it safely,” he said.

At last count, regulators had contacted 111 licensees in 43 of the state’s 58 counties, but they had begun just three disciplinary actions while other investigations were ongoing, Carr said. He said most businesses readily complied.

However, the department’s filing asserts: “Many businesses and citizens have demonstrated an unwillingness to abide by the public health orders and have instead opened for business.”

That creates public health risks that require immediate enforcement, it argues. For most people, the virus causes mild or moderate symptoms for up to three weeks. The vast majority recover. Some older adults and people with existing health problems can experience severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.

The department said it was already planning to toughen its rules before the coronavirus, but it now is speeding up the effort. Its filing projects that businesses will appeal to a Superior Court just once or twice each year.

Monday’s filing triggered a 15 day administrative review process that includes a five-day public comment period before the Office of Administrative Law approves or rejects the proposal. Once that is completed, the emergency rules will take effect as soon as they are filed with the secretary of state.

The department said it then intends to continue the normal months-long rule-making process to make the tougher regulations permanent.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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