Hamilton’s, in August, where outdoor dining had been added due to the pandemic. Photo credit: @HamiltonsTavernSD, via Facebook

All San Diego County restaurants and businesses with restaurant service are exempted from enforcement of California’s regional COVID-19 stay-at-home order, a judge ruled Thursday, but the state planned a quick appeal.

San Diego Superior Court Judge Joel R. Wohlfeil granted a preliminary injunction Wednesday that allowed a pair of San Diego strip clubs — Cheetahs Gentlemen’s Club and Pacers Showgirls International — to remain open amid COVID-19 restrictions, as well as “San Diego County businesses with restaurant service … subject to protocols that are no greater than is essential to further defendants response to control the spread of COVID.”

Wohlfeil’s ruling prompted the county and state to seek an emergency hearing Thursday afternoon for clarification, though officials had issued a statement Wednesday night indicating the county was suspending enforcement against restaurants and live entertainment establishments.

At Thursday’s hearing, Wohlfeil said, “The court’s intention is that all businesses which provide restaurant service, meaning all restaurants in the county of San Diego, are encompassed within the scope of the court’s order.”

The county issued a statement following the hearing that read, “We expect the state to appeal, as soon as today. As we said, we will not enforce until the matter is decided. Our board meets tomorrow in closed session to determine what our next steps may be.”

Among the local leaders praising the ruling were Sen. Brian Jones of Santee, who said, “Businesses with restaurant service are essential to our communities. Thank you to Judge Wohlfeil for acknowledging these shutdown orders are not grounded in evidence and allowing restaurants to reopen.”

County Supervisor Jim Desmond, who has long advocated for businesses to be allowed to reopen, called it “a victory for the working people in San Diego County.”

San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria, who said the city is working with the state and county to determine the extent of the ruling’s implications, urged San Diegans to continue following public health guidelines, such as remaining home as much as possible, wearing masks, avoiding large gatherings and ordering food to go.

“No one wants our small businesses to be closed, but the science and data are showing a dire trend in hospitalizations and deaths. Over 1,200 have died in San Diego County and the ICU capacity in Southern California has dropped to zero,” Gloria said. “We have a collective obligation to accept the personal responsibility of keeping each other safe…The health of our local economy hinges on the health of San Diegans.”

Two well-known local restaurants, Bleu Bohème in Kensington and Pacifica Del Mar, quickly announced plans to reopen for in-person dining while following previous safety protocols.

The ruling originated from a lawsuit filed by Cheetahs and Pacers to stay open amid county public health restrictions. Wohlfeil issued a temporary restraining order in the clubs’ favor last month.

Since then, a regional stay-at-home order prohibiting both indoor and outdoor dining went into effect, limiting restaurants to takeout, pickup or delivery.

Wohlfeil wrote in his nine-page ruling that the state of California and San Diego County had not provided adequate evidence tying the spread of COVID-19 or lack of intensive care unit bed capacity to live adult entertainment or businesses with restaurant service.

Attorney Jason Sacuzzo, who represents Pacers, argued Wednesday that there hasn’t been a single case of COVID-19 transmission traced to either club since Wohlfeil issued the temporary restraining order in early November.

Deputy Attorney General Patty Li, representing the state, argued Wednesday that conditions involving the virus has changed since Wohlfeil’s initial ruling, citing increased case and death numbers, as well as a reduction in ICU capacity in the Southern California region, which she was noted was near zero.

The ruling is at odds with another San Diego judge’s finding in a separate case that denied a request from local restaurants and gyms to resume indoor operations.

In that case, San Diego Superior Court Judge Kenneth J. Medel ruled “while there may be evidence that shows a current minimal COVID-19 spread in the restaurants and gyms of San Diego County, that does not necessarily mean that restrictions in these sectors going forward are unwarranted.”

However, that ruling came prior to the regional stay-at-home order that also prohibited outdoor dining.

A hearing on the request for a preliminary injunction in that case is slated for Friday afternoon.

Updated at 5:40 p.m., Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020

— City News Service