Over a Hundred Protest in Support of Outdoor Dining on Coast Village Road
More than one hundred Montecito and Santa Barbara residents gathered at noon on Saturday, December 12 in front of Tre Lune Ristorante to protest California Governor Gavin Newsom’s ban on outdoor dining in several Southern California counties including Santa Barbara. Although Newsom’s order aims to help local hospitals avoid an unmanageable spike in COVID-19 patients during the winter holidays, protest organizers and attendees pointed out that Santa Barbara County, with its relatively low case load compared to Los Angeles County, does not currently seem poised for such a catastrophe.
One of the protesters, David Schneiderman, said that it made no sense for Santa Barbara to be lumped in with counties such as Los Angeles that have a much higher patient load. “I don’t think that’s fair,” he said. “It’s almost like we are being penalized for doing the right thing, for doing all the social distancing, and wearing our masks. We got our numbers down and now we’re being penalized for it.”
Another protester, Pete Jordano, said he is protesting in solidarity with the front line workers in the food industry, a business his family knows well. “Our company has been in business in March of next year for 106 years,” he said. According to Jordano, most of his 500-plus employees have been with the company for 16 years. “To me that’s the thing I’m most proud of,” he said. “And that’s why we’re here; we need to help the people who work at this level. Most of the people who work in these restaurants are low income. So when it comes to working as a waiter or waitress or in the kitchen, to let them go at this time of the year is brutal. And we need to take care of them.”
Tre Lune owner Gene Montesano said news of Newsom’s recent order banning outdoor dining until the week after Christmas, “spread like wildfire.” He and other restaurateurs felt betrayed by Newsom, Montesano said, and didn’t see how the data backed up the governor’s policy. “There is no science proving any of this; this is nonsense,” Montesano said, pointing to studies that showed that indoor family gatherings as opposed to outdoor dining were linked to spreading the virus.
Montesano accused Santa Barbara officials of failing to follow the example of Solvang, where the city council voted unanimously on December 7 to allow restaurants to remain open for outdoor dining. The Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors also voted to ask Newsom to create a separate “Central Coast Region” governing rules on outdoor dining.
“Why can Solvang decide to stay open, and we’re not, and we share the same health department?” Montesano asked, adding that he’s already received a warning letter from the county because a few people took dinner from the restaurant and opted to picnic outside. “We got a letter from the health department saying if you do it again, it will be a minimum of a $1,000 fine and possible imprisonment,” he said. “It’s heavy handed.”
According to Montesano, who also owns Lucky’s Steakhouse and D’Angelo Bakery, his clientele during the pandemic so far has consisted of 150,000 people, none of whom to his knowledge have contracted the virus. When one employee contracted COVID-19 in April, Montesano shut down his two affected restaurants for a week.
“Nobody has tested positive since and I haven’t heard of one person who got it,” he said. “This is crazy.” Montesano said he just laid off 73 employees at his various establishments. “And this is right around the holidays and that’s what really has the effect,” he said. “If you lay someone off and everything’s shut down they can’t go get another job right now, so it’s terrible. I’m not thinking about me and my profitability. I’ll be okay. But it’s different for them, you know?”
In a gesture of hospitality, Tre Lune offered free water, coffee, and pizza to those who gathered in support of Montecito’s restaurant workers on Saturday. On hand to make sure everyone was being taken care of was Leslie Garofalo, Tre Lune’s general manager. “The health department gave us a forty-eight-hour window to shut down our operations and go back to take out only,” Garofalo said. “So therefore we had multiple layoffs and lost quite a bit of our staff. I am doing what I can to spread the shifts so people can have some sort of income and get through this horrible time, especially with the holidays.”
Although 2020 has been a challenging year, Garofalo insisted the restaurant had been doing fairly well until Newsom pulled the plug on outdoor dining. “If we are all shut down, we are going to lose everything,” she said. “What’s the point? Everybody has been very cautious and diligent. We haven’t had any [COVID] cases. We have followed all the protocols and sanitized every station. We have disposable menus; everybody wears a mask. We are doing everything we can and they throw another curve ball at us.”
Last week, Garofalo said, some 20 restaurant owners met together (outside with proper social distancing) to strategize a response to Newsom’s order. “We need to make things happen so we can open our doors for outdoors dining,” she said. “Solvang opened up, Paso Robles opened up for outdoor dining. They are disputing the restrictions and I think as a community we need to fight this as well. It just isn’t right; it’s unfair.”
Garofalo noted that COVID restrictions have led to a nationwide mental health crisis. “Suicide rates have gone up, and overdose rates have gone up,” she said, a trend that Garofalo tragically knows all too well; her 37-year-old son overdosed on opioids this May. “He died from depression,” she said. “It’s happening everywhere. You have to take all that into consideration. I don’t mean to bring that up but it’s what’s going on in the world today and we have to stand up and do something.”