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Fiddleheads Cafe owner closes rather than comply with Mendocino County health order

A Mendocino restaurateur faced with a second $10,000 citation for violating the county’s health order closed up shop over the weekend rather than require his workers to wear facial coverings or otherwise comply with his county’s health order.

Chris Castleman boarded up the windows at Fiddleheads Cafe on Saturday, a day after a Mendocino County code enforcement officer issued a formal notice of violation directing him to cease operations unless he was implementing required measures to curb the spread of COVID-19.

Instead, Castleman installed strand board in the windows and spray-painted the words, “Closed by order of Mendocino County,” a move which in itself violates the zoning provisions of the town’s designation as a Historical Preservation District.

Castleman, who did not respond to phone calls Tuesday, was cited June 16 after receiving a similar notice for failing to certify his 2-year-old business and pledging to follow the pandemic precautions.

He filled out the necessary form the next day but continued to flout mask and social distancing requirements that are part of both state and local orders. In fact, Castleman said at the time of the citation he had no intention of doing otherwise.

“I’m not going to tell my employees to do anything,” he said then. “That’s between them and the county. In general, the stance I have on all this is it’s about personal responsibility and personal choice. It’s not about me being a police officer.”

On a GoFundMe page designed to raise money for lawyers’ fees, Castleman wrote, “We have sustained 3 months of attacks from a small group of activist/bullies and overreaching politicians, and the time has come to fight back. We will never give in to an angry crowd of self-righteous and over-opinionated people.”

But Supervisor Ted Williams, whose district includes the picturesque coastal village of Mendocino, said he believes the majority of coast residents want to see compliance, particularly now, with cases going up, and especially for restaurant and business owners, who need the virus contained so they can remain in business.

The number of COVID-19 cases has risen by more than half in the 2½ weeks since Castleman was first cited, from 53 to 83 people, according to Mendocino County Public Health.

The county of about 87,000 people has had no known coronavirus-related deaths, but an ongoing nationwide surge and the increased presence of leisure travelers on the North Coast were enough that Mendocino County Health Officer Noemi Doohan announced Tuesday that she would be dialing back slightly on recent lifting of restrictions. Starting Friday, the county will require alcohol sales at bars and other establishments to end by 8 p.m., a measure aimed at hampering transmission rates and forestalling any state intervention.

“I do not want the state to step in and close us,” Doohan said. “I want to be able to keep the local health officer authority intact, and so therefore everything that I’m doing is in response to the data and the science but also to keep our local county autonomy.”

County officials also were quick to correct the misinformation on Castleman’s signs, saying they did not order the restaurant closed.

“We’ve done everything we can to work with the employer,” Williams said. “What I heard from him is he’s not willing to agree to the state’s requirements.”

Castleman, who kept his cafe open during shelter-in-place for curbside service, has made no secret of his disdain for requirements that people wear facial coverings, posting a sign in the window of his Lansing Street eatery early on that stated, “Our freedom doesn’t end where your fear begins.”

He has continued to urge would-be customers made uncomfortable by the tight space and lack of masking in his cafe to look elsewhere, even after getting dinged in mid-June by code enforcement.

Castleman has his supporters — enough that he’s raised $1,535 from 15 donors through the GoFundMe campaign — but many detractors, as well, some of them Tuesday variously calling him “ignorant,” “belligerent” and “childish.”

Another person, local real estate broker Scott Roat, said, “With the boards he put up, he’s sort of stomping his feet and saying, ‘I’m going to do it my way.’ “

The boarded windows, meanwhile, were a clear enough violation of the historic preservation provisions intended to maintain the 19th-century character of Mendocino that Interim County Code Enforcement Officer Trent Taylor began addressing it even before receiving what by Tuesday were two formal complaints, he said.

Liability for such matters rests with the building owner, who could be fined if it’s not corrected, Taylor said.

The building owner, Mike Huttleston of Newcastle, said Tuesday he had been trying to reach Castleman to get him to remove the offending boards.

One way or the other, he said, “We’re going to get it taken down,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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