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Wine Country restaurants suing California leave lawsuit on table after outdoor dining ban lifts

California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s latest backpedal that opens up outdoor dining for North Bay restaurants was met with cautious optimism that the overturn of the ban doesn’t come without a hitch.

The lawsuit was filed Jan. 19 in Napa County Superior Court. The plaintiffs are 50 Wine Country eateries and wineries seeking judicial intervention to reopen restaurants for outdoor dining. It’s unclear whether the coalition will move forward at this point.

An attorney for the plaintiffs, the Wine Country Coalition for Safe Reopening, added that even with the lifting of the shelter-in-place order, seeking damages hasn’t been taken off the table.

“I’ve been discussing this with my clients. Obviously, it’s gratifying news for my clients who will be able to return to their livelihoods and pursue outdoor activities,” Coblentz Patch Duffy & Bass Attorney Thomas Harvey told the Business Journal.

Harvey said the No. 1 goal for his clients remains to consistently stay open. With much yanking back and forth between opening and closing, some trust has gone out the window with their profits.

Although the governor is allowing the restaurants to operate outside for now, “it doesn’t necessarily mean it won’t happen tomorrow,” Harvey explained.

The San Francisco-based law firm filed the case on behalf of the Wine Country coalition on the grounds the ban appears “arbitrary,” lacking in scientific evidence to base the policy on and “poses an existential threat to Napa’s and Sonoma’s core industries, threatening them with economic collapse,” the legal complaint reads.

When asked by the Business Journal how the science backs up the reason for the closure of outdoor dining, the California Department of Public Health turned to the governor’s press office.

“We will vigorously defend against this lawsuit challenging public health orders implemented to save lives and prevent the regional medical system from collapsing,” Newsom’s spokesman Jesse Melgar told the Business Journal in a statement.

But tell that to the multitude of North Bay restaurants struggling to get by and even investing more to operate, the lead plaintiffs contend.

They’re offended that restaurants have been deemed by the state as a major contributor to the spread of COVID-19.

Cynthia Ariosta, who’s the managing partner of Pizzeria Tra Vigne in St. Helena and represents the coalition, has lost $1 million in gross income in 2020 compared to 2019, she told the Business Journal.

On top of that, she spent money gutting the dining room, used $3,000 to build a wall in the middle of that space and placed an $18,000 non-refundable payment on a tent she couldn’t use, when the state closed down restaurants. She also bought patio heaters at $250 a piece to make diners comfortable.

“I thought: ‘There’s no way they’ll take away outdoor dining,’” she said last week. “I’ve had to pivot, pivot, pivot.”

And it looks like the governor has now done the same, prompting a happier tone from the coalition.

“We are gratified that the governor has ended this needlessly devastating ban,” Ariosta wrote in response Monday, along with Carl Dene on behalf of the coalition.

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