Mike Guzman, general manager of El Toro Bravo in Truckee, has soured his relationship with Nevada County since the onslaught of COVID-19.
According to county officials and research for this article, the restaurant is part of a small number of defiant establishments that have not complied with some or all state, county, and town restrictions during the pandemic. It was a tough decision for the family-run business, but one for which they’ve stuck to their guns.
“If they told me 25%, I was probably running at 50% [capacity indoors]. If they told me we could have 50%, I was probably running at 75%,” he told Moonshine. “After about April, my family just kind of took it upon themselves and we basically made the decision that we’d rather die on our feet than live on our knees.”
Guzman says El Toro Bravo received numerous phone calls and a few in-person visits regarding complaints of noncompliance from Nevada County’s environmental health department back in March and April, and that he pushed back each time. Then, he said, there was “radio silence” from the county until recently.
Around mid-December, the restaurant was one of several other Truckee businesses asked to participate in a conference call with law enforcement and county health officials to clarify the order.
Moonshine obtained email exchanges between the county’s health department and two other Truckee businesses that confirm they, too, participated in such a call.
“From the very beginning, my feeling has been that no matter what we do as human beings this thing is gonna run its course,” Guzman said. He chose to prioritize his family (which includes an elderly mother and mother-in-law, so “I’ve got a few dogs in this fight,” he says) and his employees — all 18 of them, none were let go during the pandemic.
Guzman described a memorable visit from a Nevada County environmental health inspector. “She came in that day and tried to shut me down; our patio was packed,” Guzman said. “Packed. And there wasn’t a single person wearing a mask. I said to her, do you see anybody here complaining? No one’s complaining. Everyone’s using the facility.”
Guzman suggested signage informing customers of their choices, to the effect of “entering at your own risk.” The restaurant has been consistently allowing dine-in using to-go containers, but with no table service “to even the playing field” with other restaurants.
Ultimately, even with recent contact from the county and the town police department and a continuous stream of warning letters in the spring, Guzman never felt the orders and mandates had any teeth: “So they’re just walking around with a big stick dragging around behind ‘em, and no one’s willing to pick it up and take a swing at anybody,” he said.
Nevada County’s stated enforcement policy involves education steps such as the calls Guzman and other business owners have participated in and site visits such as Guzman’s by inspectors in the environmental health department.
An email shared with the Ink by the county in which the specific business name was redacted reveals the language utilized when enforcement action takes place post-education phase. In it, county environmental health director Amy Irani explained to that business that the department had received complaints, followed by education via verbal exchanges, information distribution, and in-person visits.
Irani’s email goes on to present to the Truckee business their decision following the education phase, explaining that, “based upon the several attempts to gain compliance via education, the [environmental health department] at this stage, does not have any other option available but to proceed with a final letter prior to permit suspension.”
While the public health department participates in the education phase and has collaborated with the Town of Truckee and law enforcement, direct enforcement is under Irani’s purview in the environmental health department. The role has been a fine line to walk in a pandemic.
“This puts us in a very difficult spot,” she said. “I’ve worked very hard over the last five years to bridge the gap between regulator and industry, and I want it to be an education and a cooperative relationship, and now you’ve got a few outliers that … after COVID, we’ve still got to work with these folks.”
Placer County, on the other hand, confirmed it does not enforce the regulations directly. “[The county] doesn’t have an enforcement role in compliance with state orders but has maintained an approach of providing education and support to businesses throughout the pandemic to help them comply,” said public education officer Stephanie Herrera in an email exchange with Moonshine Ink.
If businesses continue to not comply, then the county will refer the issue directly with local jurisdictions “or the appropriate state regulatory agency.”
Moonshine’s coverage counties also include El Dorado in California and Washoe in Nevada, both of which have similar stated policies focusing on education to Placer and Nevada counties. Like Nevada County, El Dorado provides a form to submit complaints of noncompliant businesses. Additionally, the county passed a supplemental limited stay-at-home ordinance which reinforces the county’s ability to pass more stringent measures than the state if necessary. None of the businesses interviewed, both on and off the record, are in these counties.
“We’re not about being punitive,” Irani of Nevada County said of their enforcement approach. “I really want to push that out to our community … We’re about getting to the end goal which is making them successful. So that message has not changed.”
Reading the fine print
With all the fluctuations in regulations — sometimes issued by the state, other times from the county level — businesses say they were hard-strapped to keep up.
During the December call with local enforcement, Guzman was asked if he understood current regulations. He says his honest response was, “No, I really don’t know what the rules are because unfortunately I get some of them from the news, from the media, I get some of them from other businesses, I get some of them from the local citizens, and I get some of it from my own common sense.”
As things currently stand, based on a decision by Gov. Gavin Newsom on Jan. 25, counties are operating independently once more on a tiered system of regulations, with industry-based mandated reduced capacity, social distancing indoors, and mask-wearing now determined county-by-county.
While that gives local counties the ability to exit the most stringent tiers of regulation, as of publication of this article all three Moonshine California counties (Nevada, Placer, El Dorado) remain in the “purple” tier, meaning “many non-essential indoor business operations are closed,” according to California’s COVID-19 information hub, where you can check your county’s status in real time. The purple tier is the most stringent state-down category of regulation, but individual counties in the state “can restrict further.”
The fluctuations in regulation were put in succinct terms in an email exchange between the Tahoe-Truckee Sanitation Agency and local business owners that was shared with Moonshine Ink. In it, businesses complained that the agency is charging regular sewage rates at a time when capacity has been regulated to be decreased.
Jonny Roscher, chef and owner of Za’s Lakefront, outlined the back-and-forth in 2020’s restriction fluctuations as they applied to the restaurant industry on the North Shore. He summarized: “So basically for 2020 we were open with no limitations for 10 weeks. 25% capacity for 12 weeks. 50% capacity 4 weeks. Outside seating only [for] 12 weeks. [To-go] only, no seating [for] 14 weeks.”
TTSA’s La Rue Griffin responded via email to Roscher expressing understanding about the pandemic’s detrimental effects on local businesses, that the board had voted in May 2020 not to instill a service and connection fee payment relief program, and that his position doesn’t afford the authority to adjust these fees. However, Griffin indicated that a written request for relief could be submitted to the agency’s board of directors.
Steve Topol, owner of The Blue Agave in Tahoe City, participated in the exchange with Griffin over TTSA fees. Overall, he is clear that he has worked to follow all current regulations to the best of his ability … but it isn’t easy.
“We’re all in the dark, that’s the whole thing,” Topol said. “We just see these things come across and the only information we ever get is from an email. Sometimes you see it; sometimes you don’t.”
Topol has been researching and sharing information about precedents set for the rights of small businesses in other parts of California; he wants on public record that he disagrees with how Placer County and California have regulated his industry.
Coloring within the lines had Topol contemplating the possible loss of his business back in May; overall he estimates that revenue in 2020 was down 50%.
Toward the end of 2020, in Truckee, a group of business owners organized a campaign to establish the town as a “sanctuary city” from COVID regulation compliance, meaning the town would state open defiance to statewide regulations.
In a December town council meeting, more than 20 public comments spoke to the call (with community both in support and opposition of the idea) in a special portion of the meeting. Many of the comments described the local business community’s ability to practice safe social distancing and other protection measures independently of statewide restrictions. After the comments, council made it clear that the priority of the town was public-health protection and the idea was not going to be considered, and the movement seems to have died down.
Nonessential to whom?
One Truckee business that fell into the dreaded “nonessential” category in March of last year, which meant it was ordered to be closed for many months over the past year, has kept its doors open fairly consistently through the pandemic. Mike Richardson’s decision to keep Alpenflow, a yoga studio he established in 2018, running at some capacity involved implementing a system he feels addresses the intent behind the guidelines.
“I’m not a COVID denier,” Richardson said, adding that he himself has a compromised immune system and has spent significant time researching the virus’ spread and the best ways to ensure safety while allowing both in-person and virtual classes. Rather, like Guzman, he feels he made a tough choice that was best for his business and his community.
Richardson made that decision early, and he invested in it, spending $10,000 on air filtration and other upgrades to ensure that wellness-seekers in the building were never breathing recycled air. In a studio that normally fits 80 participants, during the pandemic no more than 19 people have been allowed to take in-person classes at once.
A mask is required for all staff and clients everywhere in the studio, but Richardson has upheld throughout that people may choose to wear a mask or not while on their own mat.
It’s been tough for businesses deemed nonessential like Alpenflow, Richardson said, and he has felt frustration at the greater small business community for a lack of acknowledgement and assistance.
“I’m watching businesses [say] were open, we’re good, forget all of you,” he said, continuing that since the initial stay-at-home order [on] March 17, “there wasn’t anybody standing up for [us and] the other studios and the gyms, and for salons when all of their restaurants were thriving all summer.”
Richardson maintains a job in Martis Camp that’s been deemed essential, working 50 hours a week as a service employee in that community, and has been using that income to partially subsidize Alpenflow. He estimates that the yoga studio stands at roughly 30% of normal revenue this past year. “So I’m an essential worker with a nonessential business,” he quipped.
The lodging industry has also been subject to fluctuating restrictions and cases of businesses who have chosen not to comply wholeheartedly to regulations. For those in consistent compliance, the bottom line was hit hard.
Russ Baruh, broker and co-owner of Tahoe City’s Hauserman Rental Group, says his business has strictly adhered to statewide and county mandates and suggestions throughout the pandemic. The decision, based on the interest of public health, cost the company exorbitant revenue, to the tune of an estimated “$100,000, or more, in commissions,” he told Moonshine Ink.
“It was really frustrating for us because there was numerous motels and property management companies that didn’t follow that procedure and they stayed open,” Baruh said.
Right next door to the Hauserman Rental Group’s main office is America’s Best Value Inn, where several other business owners in the area said it appeared to have been open (and the Ink confirmed reservations appeared unrestricted via their online portal) during periods where the stay-at-home restrictions have mandated no recreational lodging. Moonshine reached out to the inn for comment several times; staff including management insisted that the establishment was following regulations.
“We can’t accept anybody from out of state,” said front desk receptionist Kathleen Laucher at a time mid-December when only essential workers were permitted to stay in lodging establishments, adding, “we’re doing our best.”
Initially the inn’s management said they would set up a time for the owner to call Moonshine Ink with a comment; however, in the end a manager said the proprietor will not make a public statement at this time.
Baruh, like Topol, is concerned about the unfairness of being punished for doing what’s expected, saying that since “[Placer] County and the state didn’t have enough enforcement to make these other places stay closed, it was a shame that they didn’t have more teeth in their order.”
Specific to lodging industry concerns, too, are the ever-elusive short-term rentals, which Baruh notes bring in transient occupancy tax monies to the county and, according to him, that has created a lack of incentive for the county to enforce COVID regulations.
Now, with tiered restrictions back to a county-level decision and more localized travel making Tahoe extra appealing, Baruh is less worried about the flow of tourists and expects a profitable winter. Yet the pandemic remains out of everyone’s control, and if restrictions tighten once more he would consider taking the property management company along the route of other lodging establishments and ignore aspects of the suite of regulations.
“If everybody else is gonna stay open, then we might as well stay open,” Baruh said.