California restaurant owners and employees have celebrated the end of strict lockdowns and begun the process of reopening. While California remains the only state in the nation to continue to ban indoor dining, most of us are back cooking, serving and — especially — cleaning for our valued customers.
Unfortunately though, our issues are not over.
Restaurant owners are staring down possible COVID-related lawsuits for years on end. Just one lawsuit could mean, again, shuttered doors and employees fired — this time permanently. Simply put, we are not protected.
As we are constantly reminded by Sacramento politicians, California is the fifth-largest economy in the world. Yet those same politicians seem to forget the economy is powered by millions of small businesses responsible for tens of millions of jobs. Our leaders in Sacramento have left businesses wide open to COVID-related litigation that promises massive paydays for lawyers, but risking the survival of businesses and the jobs they support.
Unfortunately, restaurants have it worse than most. Already small and shrinking profit margins, coupled with the outsized negative effects from lockdowns, have us hanging by a thread. As a chef and restaurant owner, I’ve already witnessed massive, permanent staff reductions across the industry as takeout and curbside pick-up become the new norm. And as consumer habits shift away from eating out, almost every restaurant is struggling to get by.
Now add lawsuits to the mix. Between varying waves of lockdowns and struggling to pay employees, and going back and forth with indoor vs. outdoor dining and table size, lawyers are circling like sharks in the water. Plaintiffs’ attorneys are seeking patrons who have had COVID-19. Restaurants — especially those that are small and family-owned places — are easy targets.
Big chains can afford lawyers. Mom and Pop places cannot. Imagine investing your life savings in a family-owned restaurant and then be forced to pay large settlements up front just because you can’t afford to go to court. They can’t afford legal representation or expert witnesses to testify that any particular measure was flawless in preventing coronavirus transmission. Many will just give up and declare bankruptcy.
Research conducted by the Littler Mendelson law firm found nearly 2,000 COVID-related liability suits had been filed since the beginning of the pandemic. These numbers have been steadily increasing as the pandemic has drawn out. Where one lawyer is successful, many more follow.
At this point, if you are thinking defendants are innocent until proven guilty in the United States, your legal acumen is impressive. Unfortunately, in California, businesses must now prove they did not give someone COVID-19 in these cases, no matter how meritless a plaintiff’s case may be. Providing this proof can be nearly impossible. Even public health experts acknowledge nothing can truly mitigate the spread of the virus with 100% efficacy.
So we are left with two outcomes. Either restaurants choose to open their doors, operating in line with current health and safety guidelines and risk getting sued out of business. Or we self-impose lockdowns and hope we have enough of a safety net to survive the pandemic.
Thank goodness we now have the opportunity to open more fully. But the legal issues dropping on us are an insult to all the hardworking chefs, restaurant owners, waiters, waitresses and other staff heroically serving customers and earning a living.
State lawmakers have the legal authority to provide immunity to restaurants and businesses. They need to act on that authority and preempt civil liability for COVID-related claims. Communities across the country have rallied to shop and eat local. We need lawmakers to rally together to get the job done for small businesses.
Andrew Gruel is the CEO and executive chef of Slapfish, a Huntington Beach-based seafood restaurant franchise, and a judge and host on the Food Network. He wrote this column for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters.