Patrons gather to protest ban on outdoor dining

Visalians sit in the cold under tents and in lawn chairs, eating and drinking to protest Gov. Newsom’s stay-at-home order banning outdoor dining in the San Joaquin Valley region

VISALIA – Diners gathered under tents and in lawn chairs on main street Dec. 7 to take a seat against Governor Gavin Newsom’s regional stay-at-home order restricting restaurants to take-out only and ordering bars shut.

Many main street restaurants and bars were bussing beers and food to customers seated under white tents adjacent to the sidewalk despite the stay-at-home order having gone into effect at midnight Sunday.

Duane Rodriguez, the owner of Downtown Rookies Sports Bar & Grill, said about 10 downtown restaurants agreed to stay open after meeting Sunday. For Rodriquez, he said it’s about his employees.

“This is nothing more than a humanity issue,” Rodriguez said. “I am not going to lay my employees off two weeks before Christmas. It’s unacceptable. We have a husband and wife team here, we have it all. That literally puts no money, no food on the table, no presents for the kids—we’re just not going to do it.”

Rodriguez said they plan to stick to their guns at Rookies and hope they don’t get shut down, citing what he feels was a “deliberate shutdown” by the governor after shifting the focus from counties to entire regions in the state that eventually led to the closure of restaurant dining and bars within 48 hours of the updated stay-at-home order system’s announcement. ICU capacity for the region has rapidly plunged to 5.6% as of publication—22.3% in Tulare County.

“In a nutshell, I hope that everybody joins and we continue to scale,” Rodriguez said. “Common sense would have told me, ‘don’t do this before Christmas. If we have to do this, do it in January.’ Let’s let folks enjoy their holiday. But they chose not to do that—we’re going to stay open and employ people and get them through Christmas.”

Rodriguez said for Rookies, the takeout model just doesn’t work.

“Takeout only [is] useless. 200 bucks a day if we’re lucky,” Rodriguez said. “We’re not here to talk about our losses, because they’re enormous. At the end of the day, it’s about the employees.”

Diner Mendy Martin said she’s out to support her local business folks.

“It’s my choice to come out and eat dinner with my friends and my family,” Martin said.

Martin offered similar thoughts on how she feels about the governor’s new regional stay-at-home order, and said she “doesn’t like it at all. It’s my choice.”

Martin stood firm to her support for local businesses and said for her it’s not about takeout or outdoor dining.

“To me, there really is no difference,” Martin said. “We come down here to support our local people—camaraderie, seeing everyone else that’s out and about—sometimes I just don’t want to be at home. You can only keep me at home for so long. I haven’t eaten at a Chili’s or Applebee’s in probably seven months. Everything has been local. They’re all mom and pop shops, and they all need our support.”

Jennifer Cary, a diner enjoying food and drinks with her family and friends under a tent on Main Street near Rookies and Brewbakers Brewing Company, said the hypocrisy from the top has been a “slap in the face.”

“Gavin Newsom going and being caught out not abiding by his own rules and regulations that he has set for the public was a really big slap in the face to everybody,” Cary said. “He’s got a lot of supporters in this state, he has a lot of people who don’t like him. But I think that hurt him, and it showed us, if he’s out, not social distancing, not wearing a mask, not following the guidelines, why should we?”

Cary said she does get takeout from time to time because of the convenience, but she loves gathering with her family and supporting local businesses.

“We support our local businesses, we spend a lot of money going out to eat and spending time with friends and family—and for that to be taken away from us, I don’t think it’s good for our mental health,” Cary said. “For people that are social people, people that try to get out and unwind after a hard day’s work and a long week, we need to get out, we need to socialize.”

The San Joaquin Valley region continues to be battered with new COVID-19 cases, with 194,362 total cases regionally, 22,857 total in Tulare County and 20,054 deaths statewide. Cary understands the concern for the health of herself, her family, and those around her, but she doesn’t want to live in fear.

“I’m out here, and that’s a risk I’m willing to take,” Cary said. “We could be locked in our house for an entire year, wash our hands, use hand sanitizer, wear masks and don’t go anywhere—and then literally the day the state opens up we could go get in a car accident.”

Cary acknowledged that anyone with a health concern should take every precaution.

“We’re not saying it’s fake, we’re not saying that it’s not something to be concerned about,” Cary said, “but we have to live life. We can’t shut up in our house.”

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