Come Monday morning, Linda and Quent Cordair will do something that six weeks ago was considered quite harmless.
They will open their doors for business at their downtown Napa art gallery Quent Cordair Fine Art on First Street.
What makes this particular Monday noteworthy is that by doing so the Cordairs are publicly defying the county’s order that non-essential businesses remain closed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’re prepared to risk fines, arrest, or jail,” said the couple in an open letter to the public. But, “We are facing financial ruin” if the gallery is not able to reopen, said Quent Cordair on Monday during a phone interview.
While the couple is able to sell art online, “We have no income coming in” from walk-in visitors, he said. “Every day that we are not open will make it harder for us to recover.”
The gallery is joining the debate playing out nationally with states and cities trying to decide when and how to restart the economy while the COVID-19 virus still moves through communities, taking lives.
According to the couple’s letter, dated Monday, there is no emergency in Napa County and “no evidence of an imminent crisis” from COVID-19. “Our hospitals—Kaiser, the Queen, Adventist Health—are all fine.”
As of Tuesday, there had been two deaths and 66 cases in the county.
The letter was posted on social media, sent to elected representatives and ran on the Register’s opinion page on Tuesday.
Napa County has “not come anywhere close to being overwhelmed” by COVID-19, Quent Cordair said in an interview. “If we all continue to be careful, there’s no reason” that local retailers can’t operate in the same way that Target, Walmart and even realtors are permitted.
“It’s past time to start re-opening the local economy, with care, sensible precautions, continued and increased testing, and attentive monitoring,” their letter stated.
Quent Cordair said their plan to admit a limited number of customers into their downtown Napa gallery “will be as safe or safer” than venturing to big box retailers or the supermarket – all of which are permitted and highly trafficked.
The majority of the couple’s Facebook friends seemed to support their decision.
“I would visit if I lived closer!” wrote Facebook user Tamara Caggiano.
“Fantastic!” wrote Facebook user Laurie Weleff. “Good luck to all and I hope other businesses join you.”
“Good move!” wrote Facebook user Bryan Heller.
Not everyone agreed.
Quent Cordair gallery is “one shop I will not come to visit any time soon,” said a Facebook comment from a user named Kathy Thomas. “And I AM a lover of fine art. But I’m not going to support this kind of action in our community where people are putting their lives on the line.”
“How exactly is this responsible?” asked Facebook user Gregory Twachtman.
The decision to reopen is a matter of survival, said Quent Cordair.
Thirty artists and their families rely on the gallery for their own support, he pointed out. There are gallery employees and bills to pay.
“We’ve worked too hard and fought too long to bring our business to life, to keep it alive, and to grow it over the past 24 years to sit passively and watch it die,” the letter said.
Napans should be able to work and live “on their own terms … and deal with any marginal risk at their own judgment,” they wrote.
The gallery will observe “reasonable precautionary measures,” Quent said, such as masks, disinfecting any touched surfaces and limiting the number of visitors.
“We welcome other Napa business-owners willing to join us in re-opening next Monday … but we’ll open alone if necessary,” said the letter. “We’re prepared to defend our right to live, work, and interact freely, and we will defend our right to do so.”
The current economy, “is scary as hell,” for both their own business and downtown Napa, said Quent Cordair in an interview on Tuesday. “This is all very much in jeopardy.”
Quent Cordair said that instead of their public declaration, they could have just quietly reopened the art gallery.
But they wanted to give authorities the chance “to recognize the reality of the challenge that we’re up against and to be able to respond in such a way that it’s not just one business doing it furtively,” he said on Monday.
“If the entire community can’t get back on its feet it doesn’t matter if we are open or closed in the long run. We need all of Napa to get back to being Napa.”
“Somebody had to do it,” said Linda Cordair. “We’re being honest” instead of hiding.
As one of the last fine arts galleries in Napa Valley, “This is a sanctuary” for many, she said.
“Our business is as important as any other business out there,” she said. To her, the “essential” business classification is an opinion, made by people who are likely not small business owners. To the Cordairs and their customers, art is essential.
Some of those that criticize their decision “have absolutely no idea what it means to own a small business,” said Linda Cordair.
“It’s our right to run our business in a safe manner,” she said. “This isn’t about causing trouble, it’s about finding a beginning to the recovery of our economy.”
A representative from the county of Napa could not be immediately reached to comment on this story.
“COVID 19 has had an impact none of us would have imagined, and the Cordairs’ frustration is understandable,” said Craig Smith, executive director, Downtown Napa Association.
“The good news is that business groups like the Napa Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Napa Association and others are working with the county to help formulate a way for businesses to open as soon as it’s safe for employees and the public,” said Smith.
“We aren’t there yet, but everyone involved understands the need to be nimble and to move quickly. We all want to be able to shop, dine and enjoy wine tasting again, as soon as it’s reasonable to do so.”
Napa city Councilmember Doris Gentry said that she personally supported the Cordairs’ decision to reopen against the county order.
“If Quent Cordair can do the same kind of social distancing at the gallery that the other places can,” shouldn’t they be able to open, she asked?
“Our hospitals are not overwhelmed,” pointed out Gentry. “We don’t have 1,000 people dying in Napa. I think that healthy people should be practicing good social distancing. If you’re sick, stay indoors.”
Yet “we don’t want an influx of tourists,” heading to Napa during this pandemic, she acknowledged. “That’s not going to help.”
Napans have done a good job of sheltering in place, said Napa Mayor Jill Techel. At the same time, “I think a lot of people are frustrated,” she acknowledged. “Everybody is trying to do the right thing.”
Techel said she doesn’t want to spread a message that there are non-essential businesses open in the city of Napa at this time.
“Our (COVID-19) numbers are so low, I don’t want to introduce visitors,” from other counties with much higher infection rates, said Techel.
This is about everyone doing something for the common good, she said. “We all have to do our part.”
She’s afraid that if businesses decide individually to reopen before the county amends the closure of non-essential businesses, “people will get the message that they don’t need to shelter in place,” said Techel. That’s “downright scary.”
Most of Napa is following the rules, said Techel. “We’ve done the right thing,” and it’s worked.
Yet, “Here I’ve got a Lone Ranger who wants to create different rules and I think it’s important that we stay the course.”
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