LONG BEACH, California—Vivian Hurtado and Mica Randall tried to stay out of it.
It had been two months since Los Angeles County banned onsite dining to stop a record-breaking surge of coronavirus hospitalizations. But the couple—Hurtado a vet’s assistant, Randall a contractor—knew the trendy restaurant directly behind their apartment was continuing to host customers on its back patio anyway. They figured Restauration was just doing what it had to do.
Dana Tanner, the outwardly charming owner and face of the place, has consistently said keeping her patio open is a matter of her workers’ survival. But like so many coronavirus rogues over the past year, she also appeared to embrace the notoriety that comes with defying public health orders amid a pandemic. Before New Year’s Eve, when Los Angeles County ICU capacity was at 0 percent, Restauration advertised an in-person dinner on its patio—and then doubled down when a local news organization asked about it.
The City of Long Beach health department ordered the restaurant to close one week later for violating coronavirus rules. Not long after, Tanner invited restaurant owners and journalists back to her patio, for a meeting in which she urged others to follow her lead. “It’s wrong that we’re being shut down and being discriminated against,” Tanner recounted telling other business owners, in an interview with The Daily Beast.
Finally, on Jan. 23, city utility workers showed up in the middle of Saturday brunch and shut off the restaurant’s gas. But if it was a genuine attempt to put a stop to Tanner’s antics, it wasn’t a successful one, instead setting off an increasingly bizarre chain of events that shows how businesses in California are writing their own public safety rules during the COVID-19 crisis.
That Saturday evening, Hurtado and Randall—unaware that Restauration had lost its gas earlier in the day—were watching TV at home, they recalled. They could hear some sort of work being done outside their living room window, which happens to be situated above the gas meters for their building. Then, suddenly, they heard a loud, high-pitched screeching noise, like the sound of gas escaping out of a pipe, they told The Daily Beast in separate interviews.
An overwhelming smell of gas filled their apartment, and Hurtado sent Randall outside to see what was going on, they said.
There, Randall encountered Tanner and an unidentified man. “Oh, it’s just me, Dana,” Randall recalled her saying. “He almost has a cap on it.”
Randall figured it was just some routine maintenance and reported it back to his wife. They tried to air the apartment out.
It wasn’t until the next day that they checked the news and realized that Restauration’s utility service had been shut-off.
Tanner is now facing misdemeanor charges over an unauthorized gas line that city workers found at the property the following day, when gas workers, police and the fire department showed up after receiving reports of a suspected leak. Tanner is accused of tampering with gas lines, allowing construction of an unpermitted gas line, and operation of a restaurant without a required health permit, in addition to the charges she faces for serving customers on the patio. She has not yet pleaded, but a criminal attorney handling the case will attend her arraignment on her behalf on Feb. 19, she said in an interview.
“Tampering with the gas line significantly elevated this case. It was something that put the health and safety of neighbors at risk, and we felt there was no choice but to take action,” City of Long Beach Prosecutor Doug Haubert said in an email.
Tanner denies that she tampered with the gas line, suggesting someone installed the new one without her knowledge. Pressed for more detail on what happened that night, Tanner said she was just showing a friend what the city had done. The friend then started to “play with” the gas line, Tanner said.
“I was like, ‘Yeah, let’s not do that.’ And then I walked away from it,” Tanner told The Daily Beast.
“That gas line did get opened,” she acknowledged. “I didn’t do that. I was like, ‘No, not OK.’”
The friend then closed the line, Tanner claimed, and they both went home. She blamed an unidentified third party for later installing a line connecting another apartment tenant’s gas meter to her business without her knowledge.
“Did I go out there to look at what the city had done? Absolutely. It was my gas and they took it illegally. I was livid about it,” Tanner said. “But did I switch it? No. And was it switched that night? Absolutely not.”
“I went back there with a police officer,” she added. “And I personally didn’t smell gas.”
As for keeping her patio opening during the coronavirus surge, Tanner was far from alone when it comes to pandemic resistance nationally—and in southern California in particular. The region has played host to flash mobs of anti-maskers ransacking malls, a Christian rock singer and anti-masker unleashing his fans on skid row, Kirk Cameron leading a group of anti-mask Christmas carolers, and anti-vaxxers shutting down an inoculation site at Dodger Stadium. One restaurant owner in nearby Huntington Beach went viral late last year for forbidding any customers or employees from wearing masks, reasoning that they are “a symbol of control and surrender.”
Business trade groups have waged their own campaigns against COVID rules in the state. The California Restaurant Association has claimed that less than 5 percent of cases originate from dining out, and more than a dozen restaurants sued Gov. Gavin Newsom over restrictions.
But Tanner sticks out for a remarkably lengthy campaign of defiance that has vexed local authorities.
On Thursday afternoon, Restauration was open for business, despite no longer having a health permit—or gas. The patio currently seats 36 people and is full most nights, according to Lucas Meyer, who works there as a server. Several couples left or waited to be seated during a 20-minute visit by The Daily Beast. A sign on the back patio warned anyone from “government or law enforcement” that they were not welcome. The staff cooked and cleaned with an electric flat-top grill, an electric fryer, and an electric water heater.
“A lot of these places that have been closed down are never going to come back from it. But I continue to be able to make money and support myself. So I’m very appreciative of that,” Meyer said.
For her part, Tanner insists she is not an anti-masker or pandemic denier, per se—this even as the city prosecutor alleged authorities found no enforcement of masks or social distancing when they cited the restaurant last month over its rogue patio dining. Tanner said she has kept the patio open at reduced capacity—that it previously sat 85 people—in accordance with guidelines put out by L.A. County earlier in the pandemic.
Her rhetoric sometimes creeps into denialist territory.
“The danger, the livelihood of our residents, to me, it has a higher mortality rate than this virus does and who it’s affecting,” she said of pandemic restrictions. “And I’m not saying that it’s not real, but what happens with these young people in their twenties, and my kids and the other businesses on the block?”
Last year, Tanner received a $71,600 PPP loan under the CARES Act, as the Long Beach Post reported. She said the money only covered what the restaurant lost in the first three months of the pandemic, when they agreed to go to takeout-only in accordance with earlier guidelines. But her ongoing legal battle could pose its own financial challenge: Tanner currently faces 21 misdemeanor charges and up to $52,000 in fines.
Early this month, she filed a petition against Long Beach and its health department, claiming that her gas was illegally shut off, that there is “no reliable data” linking the spread of COVID-19 to restaurant dining, and asking for her health permit to be returned. She filed the petition with the help of a civil attorney and declined to say how much she was paying for his services.
She acknowledged that the legal fight could end up being more expensive than going takeout-only would have been. “It could be. But it’s the principle of the matter,” she said.
It’s true that there is limited data on the dangers of outdoor dining, but an absence of data doesn’t mean it’s safe. “When you go to a restaurant, you tend to be in close proximity with people you have not been close with before, and that tends to be for longer periods of time,” two factors that could easily spread infection, noted Dr. Timothy Brewer, an epidemiologist at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health.
Outdoor dining is once again allowed in L.A. County after Gov. Newsom eased restrictions late last month. Of course, Restauration never shut down in the first place. That fact isn’t lost on local authorities, but they do seem to be at a loss for how to hold Tanner accountable.
“It was a little bit unusual that once the gas shut off, the business continued to operate,” Deputy City Attorney Art Sanchez said in an interview, adding that inspectors haven’t been able to go inside because Tanner has “been denying them the ability to go in and inspect.” (“That was when we were getting cited,” she responded in a text message. “Since the mandate lifted, I haven’t not allowed access.”)
Sanchez noted that a civil warrant to force an inspection was still a possibility—but also that Tanner could have her health permit returned if her civil suit is successful. The city has also warned Restauration’s landlords that they could eventually be held liable.
“It’s a unique situation, but we are doing what we can under those types of parameters,” Sanchez said.
Hurtado, the neighbor who lives in the apartment next door, said she initially didn’t complain about Restauration leaving its patio open because of the difficult situation so many small business owners are in. But after the gas incident, she is no longer keeping quiet.
“She really crossed the line,” Hurtado said. “I just can’t support that anymore when she involved us innocent bystanders who really had nothing to do with it.”