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Napa County COVID-19 complaints reveal range of civilian concerns over businesses, gatherings
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Pandemic

Napa County COVID-19 complaints reveal range of civilian concerns over businesses, gatherings

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Fumé Bistro & Bar

Fumé Bistro & Bar in Napa was a frequent target of COVID-related complaints from the public in the last seven months, records show.

Napa County has received more than 840 COVID-19 complaints from civilians between late June, when the county first reopened after springtime lockdowns, and the beginning of this month, county records show.

Of the 843 complaints submitted over that period and reviewed by the Register, two-thirds were reports of Napa County businesses not adhering to state or local guidelines, records show; individuals reported businesses for everything from improper sanitization to allowing customers to get within six feet of each other.

Nearly 12% of submitted complaints reported a gathering of some kind, ranging from a child’s birthday party to gaggle of teenagers in a neighbor’s garage.

Complaints about Gov. Gavin Newsom — either reporting his November dinner at the French Laundry (which, despite being widely ill-received, was not in violation of county guidance at the time) or mentioning Plumpjack Estate Winery, of which he is an owner — made up almost 3.5% of total complaints.

Complaints concerning customers not wearing masks inside Napa County businesses, group sports, the behavior of private citizens and about state, county or city-run facilities, including schools, made up an additional 3% each.

A team of county staff — four compliance officers, a supervisor and a compliance manager — have followed up on “each and every COVID complaint” that has been filed since July 1, according to David Morrison, director of Planning, Building and Environmental Services for Napa County, either delegating complaints to the relevant city or regulatory agency or themselves making site visits to the subjects of complaints in unincorporated portions of the county. Between March and July, he said, complaints were referred to the county counsel’s office or to the county’s public health department.

The volume of complaints soon proved too much for public health to handle alongside other pandemic-related responsibilities; the Planning, Building and Environmental Services Department began tracking complaints submitted to the form July 1.

In the event a business or individual is found to have violated state or local guidelines for the prevention of COVID-19, the county’s strategy has been to educate rather than to punish, Morrison said.

“We have issued one or two tickets, but pretty sparingly, because it doesn’t necessarily improve the situation,” he added. In the case of Fume Bistro, which became the subject of more than 50 complaints over its refusal to stop serving patrons indoors, several county departments — including Napa’s district attorney and police department — worked in tandem with a state’s strike team, he said. That particular violation was eventually referred to the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control, which forced the restaurant into compliance and prompted and a “dramatic” drop in complaints about Fume, Morrison said.

What’s more difficult is following up on complaints informed by incomplete, incorrect or subjective information. Patrons or residents “feeling unsafe” in a business environment or social situation is “individual and very subjective,” Morrison said — a standard the county cannot uphold.

Some complaints submitted to the county were immediately marked closed because they reference conduct that did not violate any guidance, the records show; others concern the one-time behavior of individual employees or customers, making it nearly impossible for the county to investigate what may or may not have happened, Morrison said.

“We do get a number of reports that mention (an employee at a business) testing positive,” Morrison said. “We can’t just presume that (information is accurate) … and we can’t grab someone off the street and swab and test them against their will.”

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The county and its cities sometimes rely upon regulatory agencies, like the ABC, to enforce guidelines; In the case of the restaurant Downtown Joe’s, the subject of at least 20 complaints received by the county, it was again the ABC that ultimately got in touch to address the slew of reported violations, according to owner Joe Peatman.

Peatman was in contact with the ABC twice, he said: the first time, the agency simply clarified some guidance — Peatman’s staff could not serve patrons waiting for their food while seated in neighboring Veteran’s Park, though customers could take their to-go meals or cocktails to the park of their own accord, the ABC told him. The second time things escalated and the ABC ultimately threatened to revoke the restaurant’s liquor license if Peatman did not remove tables and chairs from its outdoor dining area. (Customers were congregating on his outdoor patio furniture to eat their to-go meals, Peatman said, and though staff were not directly serving the seated customers, the agency said the furniture’s presence alone was encouraging then-forbidden outdoor dining.)

Those kinds of nuances have repetitively frustrated Peatman, who said he has acknowledged previous violations and is now in compliance with recommendations made by the ABC. That hasn’t stopped the stream of complaints that have come his way, he said, describing how he would address a complaint only to have “another one come, and another.”

“I’ve never closed, and I’ve not had any illness here because I am following the protocols,” Peatman said, adding the people reporting his business “don’t want to talk, don’t want to tell you who they are, but they want to tell you how you should do things.” His goal is just to keep his restaurant afloat and his employees safe and paid, he said.

At its peak amid Napa County’s reopening over the summer, Morrison said, the county’s complaint form was receiving 120 complaints each week. County officials braced for a similar onslaught after Gov. Gavin Newsom announced counties could partially reopen in mid-January, Morrison added, but reporting has been comparatively minimal since then: about a dozen or so complaints now come in each week.

“I think it could be burnout by the public, or that most businesses have gotten their acts together,” he said.

County residents or employees looking to make file a formal complaint should first review the county’s current health order restrictions and then fill out the complaint form by going to countyofnapa.org/2813/blueprint-for-a-safer-economy and scrolling down.

Watch Now: Gov. Newsom called out for public health hypocrisy

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You can reach Sarah Klearman at (707) 256-2213 or sklearman@napanews.com.

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Wine Industry Reporter

Wine industry reporter at the Napa Valley Register.

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