Ventura County settles most lawsuits over COVID closures
When the state came out from under the last round of stay-at-home orders, Ventura County settled most of its 13 lawsuits against gyms and restaurants that stayed open despite state and local health orders.
There are still several active cases open, though, as some businesses continue to defy the orders by holding indoor operations—which are not yet allowed under the purple tier of the state’s reopening system, the tier the entire Central Coast is still under.
Because of that, Ventura County is still pursuing legal action against five businesses: Mrs. Olson’s Coffee Hut in Oxnard; The Original Pizza Cookery in Thousand Oaks; House of Gains in Port Hueneme, Colosseum Bootcamp in Oxnard; and Anytime Fitness locations in Newbury Park, Camarillo and Simi Valley.
The two restaurants, Mrs. Olson’s Coffee Hut in Oxnard and The Original Pizza Cookery in Thousand Oaks, tried to have their suits moved from state jurisdiction into federal court, but a federal court sent the cases back to the state court.
Mrs. Olson’s and The Original Pizza Cookery also both asked for temporary restraining orders against the county, as well as a judgement that enforcement of the state’s health order was an “unconstitutional regulatory taking” and compensation for the business they lost, along with punitive damages and legal costs. The federal court awarded none of these and remanded the case back to the state court.
All other legal actions against businesses that were out of compliance have now been settled, and businesses had to bring themselves back into compliance before the county could settle with them. The county did not seek monetary damages from the businesses that were out of compliance, and each party covered its own fees.
“The litigation has been extremely successful,” said Michael Walker, Ventura County Counsel.
In most cases, that meant that restaurants and gyms that were operating outdoors during the stay-home order are still operating outdoors. The difference is that under the current state rules, they are allowed to operate outdoors.
In a video posted to the business’s Facebook page, the owner of Mrs. Olson’s Coffee Hut, Matt Brimigion, questioned the county’s decision to settle with businesses that were out of compliance and then brought themselves back into compliance.
“If it was so bad, why aren’t you prosecuting with everything you have?” Brimigion asked.
Walker has maintained that the county was only seeking compliance, and was not looking for monetary or other damages. Ventura County Executive Officer Michael Powers released a statement supporting businesses that have worked within the state and local health orders and condemning the businesses that went against them.
“Unfortunately, an extremely few number of businesses refused to close indoor operations in accordance with state public health orders during the recent surge and at a time when death tolls were increasing, infections were skyrocketing and hospitals were overflowing with severely ill COVID patients. In these very few instances it was only as a last resort that the county requested the court to intervene, a decision that was not made lightly,” Powers said.
According to the statement, the county has visited more than 15,000 businesses since the beginning of the pandemic as part of a public health campaign to ensure business owners understood the risks involved with COVID-19 and what precautions they could take to protect themselves, their employees and their customers.
“These few businesses continuing to operate in violation of public health orders had many opportunities to work with county, city code inspectors, or state inspectors to create a safe environment but were not willing to observe public health orders, putting their employees and community members at risk,” Powers said. “The businesses were also unfairly competing with the overwhelming majority of businesses that worked diligently to maintain safety and abide by public health orders.”
In the same statement, Powers recognized the difficulty business owners have had during the pandemic. The Ventura County Board of Supervisors has authorized more than $120 million in aid to help ease the impacts of the pandemic on local businesses, and in the statement Powers announced another $20 million in business assistance grants. The program those business grants are a part of will launch in March.