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Napa’s Fumé Bistro defies on-premises restaurant ban

Napa’s Fumé Bistro defies on-premises restaurant ban

Terry Letson at Fumé Bistro

Terry Letson, co-owner of Fumé Bistro & Bar in Napa, has continued to allow on-site dining on an outdoor patio despite a statewide order barring restaurants from offering table service, indoors or out, for at least three weeks amid a surge in coronavirus infections.

Fumé Bistro & Bar, the north Napa restaurant that briefly defied a state-ordered lockdown early in the coronavirus pandemic, has continued serving customers on its premises in defiance of a new shelter-at-home order – and doubled down on its stance in an open letter published Saturday.

Posted to Fumé’s Facebook page, the four-paragraph statement attacked the statewide order shutting down indoor and outdoor restaurant dining as a threat to a “dying” industry battered by the social distancing rules first passed in March to combat the COVID-19 crisis that has killed more than 350,000 Americans, including over 26,500 in California.

While other Napa Valley restaurants kept their dining rooms and outdoor patios off limits during the New Year’s weekend, Fumé kept its enclosed patio open to visitors, including several on New Year’s Day who were not wearing masks, according to KGO-TV Channel 7, the ABC affiliate in San Francisco.

“Bottom line, the closure of on-premises dining is uncalled for, unjust and will bankrupt an industry that has needlessly taken an unprecedented hit,” the statement read. “… The mortality rate of our industry is not acceptable. Patrons who are uncomfortable with on-premise dining, who have compromised health issues or are simply nervous about contracting (COVID-19) should stay home or take additional precautions. Fume Bistro will remain open for on-premises dinning (sic) just as other ‘essential’ businesses in our community are staying open.”

Fumé’s owner Terry Letson confirmed Sunday that the eatery at 4050 Byway East is continuing to serve diners on its outdoor patio. The restaurant’s Facebook statement argued it can safely serve customers on-site through measures such as mask wearing, minimum 6-foot spacing between tables, sanitizing surfaces and providing hand sanitizer at all tables.

Janet Upton, the Napa County spokesperson, confirmed Sunday morning that the Napa County and city governments are aware of Fumé’s defiance of the on-site dining ban, and have referred the matter to California’s enforcement task force and the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, which grants liquor licenses to restaurants.

Napa County’s other possible options include going to court for a temporary restraining order requiring Fumé to obey the state stay-home order, or suspending the restaurant’s commercial kitchen license, Upton said in an email later Sunday.

The city contacted Letson Dec. 21 to inform him of several complaints about Fumé’s continued on-site dining, and of the stay-home order restricting restaurants to take-out and delivery, according to city spokesperson Jaina French.

City enforcement of COVID-19 health orders starts with educational phone calls and usually ends there, French said late Sunday. However, continuing complaints can lead Napa’s code enforcement division to visit a business, which in turn can escalate to warnings, violation notices and citations.

The clash has played out in the wake of the county’s Dec. 18 stay-at-home order, which it passed amid a surge in coronavirus infections – and a sharp drop in intensive-care capacity at hospitals – locally and statewide from November onward. Outdoor restaurant dining and wine tastings were among the activities prohibited for at least three weeks under the order, which took effect after the Bay Area ICU vacancy rate dropped below 15%. Hair salons, movie theaters, breweries and bars also were instructed to close, and capacity reduced at groceries and other retail stores.

Napa County reported 2,674 new coronavirus cases in December, more than doubling its November count, and 5,741 cases for 2020. Twenty-nine residents died as a result of COVID-19 during the year, including 11 in December, with the county reporting the last fatality on New Year’s Eve.

Fumé argued the latest rules have unfairly targeted restaurant owners while other businesses classified as essential are allowed to remain open. “Our industry cannot survive this uncalled for restriction,” the eatery’s letter stated, claiming that less than 2% of positive cases have been traced to restaurants.

Upton, responding to the statement, said that statistic refers to the percentage of industry workers testing positive for the virus, not to the rate of community spread linked to eateries.

In a telephone interview, Letson continued to assert that restaurants are unjustly burdened by California’s lockdown rules. “When you can go to the outlet stores and other businesses … it’s ridiculous that with (safety) protocols in place, restaurants are indiscriminately chosen to bear the brunt of the penalties and restrictions,” he said.

The dispute “is not about me in particular,” added Letson. “It’s about our industry, our employees. People call me selfish, (but) I don’t get any of the money; it goes to my staff and keeping them here.”

Napa resident Lenore Hirsch said she stood outside Fume Saturday and again Sunday afternoon, holding a sign to protest Letson’s decision to continue on-site dining and calling on Napans to stick to take-out and delivery during the pandemic. Although she described a brief, civil exchange with the owner Saturday, Hirsch also reported receiving verbal insults and abuse from several passers-by, as well as being physically threatened by a man Sunday.

“Every time I drove by that place and saw all the cars parked outside, and saw people eating on the patio it burned me all my favorite restaurants are closed due to COVID and these folks are still open,” said Hirsch, a Napa Valley Register correspondent. “… It’s not fair to all the other restaurants that this one place is still open.”

Restaurant guidance posted online by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists the lowest-risk form of food service as the type limited to carry-out, delivery, drive-through and curbside pickup, with more risk of transmitting COVID-19 at places offering outdoor dining, even with socially distanced tables. The transmission risk is higher still at eateries allowing indoor dining or not increasing table spacing.

Fumé Bistro earlier clashed with Napa County over COVID-19 rules in early May, when it offered table service for two days despite a wide-ranging shutdown of non-essential business that took effect in Napa County on March 20, early in the pandemic. At the time, Letson said his business could not survive on take-out business alone.

“We’re all suffering … If we don’t keep our restaurant full, we go out of business,” he said of the brief reopening, which was halted after Letson said Napa County pressured him to close.

Another local business, the Quent Cordair Fine Art gallery on First Street, also opened in May despite the shutdown before closing again five days later.

Shifting state and county regulations since March have to various changes in the ground rules for food service since March. Relatively low COVID-19 infection rates earlier in the fall raised Napa County as high as the “orange” tier of California’s four-level ladder of viral spread, allowing table service to resume indoors as well as out. But rising infection rates caused Napa in November to drop to the purple level allowing table service only outdoors, not inside.


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Public Safety Reporter

Howard Yune covers public safety for the Napa Valley Register. He has been a reporter and photographer for the Register since 2011, and previously wrote for the Marysville Appeal-Democrat, Anaheim Bulletin and Coos Bay (Oregon) World.

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