South Bay business owners cry foul against county fines from COVID lockdown days

It has been more than two years since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and some Santa Clara County business owners are sickened. Not by the virus, but by fines levied against them by their county government.

"They are unlawful. They are out of control. And they’re being lawless," said Kelly Ranger of Los Gatos Massage & Cryotherapy.

Out of 20,000 county businesses, a half dozen owners still have active legal cases against them.

The county began assessing fines in 2020 for non-compliance with COVID health orders. The court could force the six hold outs to pay the county from over $13,000 to just under $3 million.

"I could put the money together to pay the county. But on principle I just think it’s so wrong," said James Griffiths, owner of Salon Blu in San Jose.

He said he was slapped with fines for staying open – albeit outdoors – during the shutdown order.

The owner of the Crafthouse Bar and Grill in Sunnyvale said a county enforcement officer cited him because a patron was maskless. His current penalties are nearly six-times the initial fine.

"The county is really heavy-handed on it. And I’ve noticed other counties were not in the same, they’re not doing the same thing," he said, declining to give his name for fear of retribution.

And massage therapist Kelly Ranger said her fines would wipe out half her annual earnings.

"I just can’t let this go. They’re just out of control," she said.

Two businesses that had been fined, ultimately settled their cases. At least one other is reportedly trying to work out a way of paying a portion of the $13,000 owed. And one owner is now out of business.

In an email to KTVU, a county spokesman wrote in part, "The county has worked with many businesses to find a reasonable solution…these collection actions are routine when entities fail to pay taxes, fees, or other amounts owned."

"Continuing the litigation is problematic because we need to make sure these small businesses can earn," said Prof. Angelica Gianchandani, a business administration expert at the University of New Haven.

The return to profitability is a struggle faced by many businesses in the post-COVID world. And, especially for those facing the added infliction of drawn-out litigation.

"They’re not going to put me out of business or destroy my livelihood because of their overreaction," said Griffiths.