Public health officials threaten North Bay bistro with restraining order

Some Bay Area businesses are not waiting for permission or guidance but are re-opening in defiance of COVID-19 orders.

"It's not a rash decision, we've been looking at it for a week or so," said chef Terry Letson, owner of Fume Bistro in Napa. "We need to be feeding people, to make ends meet."

Letson's restaurant has been open for 18 years but it's struggling now. 

"Forty-six days into this and we're having a tough time, we're a small restaurant with 36 employees, and they have families," he explained. "When we counted, there are almost 120 people who rely on income from this restaurant." 

Letson says serving take-out meals, permissible under the order, does not cover his costs. 

So this week, he put up a "Come On In" sign and began serving dinner to seated patrons, with modifications. 

Half of his tables and chairs are gone.

His staff has their temperature taken on arrival. 

Surfaces are sanitized frequently, and customers are using paper napkins. 

They are protocols Letson borrowed from other states that are already open,

"Our tables are six feet apart, and you're no more at risk here than at Walmart or Target or Whole Foods," he declared. 

On Tuesday evening, Fume with bustling with locals, coming in to show support. 

"We're here celebrating Mother's Day a little bit ahead of time," said customer Tom Hill, accompanied by his wife, two daughters, and granddaughter. "And we're celebrating being able to get out."  

Letson says he understands his stance isn't for everyone.  

"If you don't feel comfortable, please don't come in," he warns. "But if you're ready, we are ready to have you start dining-in."   

The owners of a Napa art gallery feel similarly.

Quent Cordair Fine Art, on First Street in deserted downtown, has a 24-year history.

This week, its owners also re-opened in violation of Napa County's shelter-in-place order.   

Owners Quent and Linda Cordair declined to talk about their actions, on their attorney's advice. 

But in an open letter announcing their decision, they cited Napa's low infection rate balanced against their right to live and work, pay bills, employees, and support artists. 

"Everyone's livelihood is essential," said gallery visitor Randy Lanosga, who made a point to stop by Tuesday to show support. 

"They value their employees and customers' safety and they'll keep us safer than any government order will."  

At the gallery, the use of gloves, masks, and physical distance are enforced. 

And Lanosga's companion argued art should be considered essential too. 

"Food for the mind and food for the soul, it provides hope," said Ben Goodwin, "so I think it's absolutely essential for mental sanity."

How much tolerance such businesses get seems to vary from county to county.

But many frustrated business owners believe public opinion is shifting.

"If we had statistics that people were getting sick, or the virus was growing, that would be one thing, but it's not, it hasn't grown in weeks," said Letson.   

On Tuesday, he did get a visit from Napa County inspectors and told them he was not going to stop serving inside. 

They responded that they would be back with a restraining order as early as Wednesday. 

But Letson is undeterred.

"It has to start somewhere," he vows, "and maybe with a couple of us pushing back, county by county, we'll get some relief from this."

As of Tuesday, Napa County had 75 confirmed COVID-19 cases, and two deaths.