Benicia restaurant owner cited over face-mask violations, claims employees exempt

A restaurant owner in Benicia said he was cited for employees not wearing masks, even though those employees have medical conditions.

Jason Diavatis, owner of The Loft Wine Bar & Restaurant, said his face covering policy is taken straight from the state’s website. The order said face coverings must be worn while inside public spaces, but people with medical conditions are exempt. He said he showed a copy of that policy to two agents from the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control when they stopped by the restaurant on Wednesday.

“They questioned every one of my employees,” Diavatis said. “They demanded the IDs from all my employees… really intimidating.”

A spokesperson for ABC said the agents were there to check for face coverings after getting a complaint from the community that employees were not wearing masks. ABC said no employees were wearing face covering, nor was the owner.

Diavatis said he was drinking a beverage and not working when the agents arrived, which is why he did not have a face covering. He also said four out of five employees did not have masks on because they have health exemptions under the state’s mask order. Employers are not allowed to ask employees about their health conditions, according to Solano County Health Officer Bela Matyas.

“The restaurant owner is put in a very precarious position because he has people working for him who are legitimately allowed to not wear a mask and he is not allowed to ask them why,” Maytas said.

Diavatis said the agents also questioned a 15-year-old dishwasher, a move he feels was inappropriate because the teen is a minor. The teen’s parents did not give consent to have their child interviewed.

Part of a statement from ABC said individuals not wearing masks were asked to verify why, but no questions were asked about specific health conditions. ABC agents determined that face coverings could have been worn by some, so a citation was written. Diavatis was cited for failing to obey a public health order issued by the California Department of Public Health under the authority of the Emergency Services Act. 

“The citation is inappropriate because the order was actually being followed,” Matyas said. “You need to be wearing a mask, if you can be wearing a mask,” Matyas said. “It is completely appropriate for many people in our community to suggest they can’t because of an underlying health condition.”

ABC said anyone with a medical condition in a job where they are in regular contact with others should wear a non-restrictive alternative, like a face shield or drape, if their condition permits it.

Matyas said the word “should” does not mean “shall.”

Diavatis said he looks forward to fighting the citation in court. It is a misdemeanor which typically carries a fine ranging from $100 to $1,000.

“I fully understand and accept there are new rules we have to follow,” Diavatis said. “With the new guidelines we've done the best we can to comply with it.”