Baret Lepejian, owner of Tinhorn Flats Saloon & Grill in Burbank, said he loves the city’s Police Department. But the only way he’s closing his restaurant, he added, is if officers drag him away at gunpoint.
Lepejian is no stranger to controversy; his Facebook posts declaring that his business would not enforce face covering requirements for customers earned him condemnation from many local residents and praise from some others in October.
But the restaurateur’s decision to reopen Tinhorn Flats’ patio on Thursday despite a statewide health order banning in-person dining — a defiance not shared by most of Burbank’s businesses — seems to echo some of the growing desperation felt by many eateries’ owners.
“What have I got to lose? If it stays this way, I’m going to lose the restaurant anyway,” Lepejian said. “I would rather go down with the ship than close.
“If I don’t make the money in the next few weeks to pay some crucial bills, I’m out,” he added.
On Thursday, more than two dozen patrons filed into the restaurant’s outdoor patio within an hour of its reopening. While some brought face coverings, most of those who did removed them by the time they sat down. A few patrons also crossed tables, circulating a petition to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom.
Alexis Brubaker, a local resident and small business owner, visited Tinhorn Flats on Thursday with her husband, Adam, and their two children. They wanted to come to the restaurant, they said, as a show of support.
“If we had a storefront like this, our kids would be starving, we would be out in the cold and no one would be paying our bills,” Alexis said. ”Just like I would stick with any Burbank resident, any parent, anyone who’s in a situation I can relate to, I’m going to stick with them. I’m going to stand up for them.”
Lepejian said his staff members are wearing masks and the tables are distanced from each other. And he doesn’t deny that the coronavirus exists — in fact, his aunt died from the disease. But, he pointed out, she was 81 and had a variety of preexisting health conditions. He instead insists that the threat of COVID-19 has been overblown, and that the virus doesn’t kill younger people.
“[The dining ban] has nothing to do with the disease,” he said. “This is only about fear and control of the public.”
While the vast majority of deaths due to COVID-19 are among older populations with underlying health conditions, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health has reported that younger people are driving the spread of the virus, potentially contributing to the hospitalizations and deaths of their older neighbors.
And some of the underlying health conditions that put a person more at risk of dying of COVID-19, including diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease, are somewhat common. Public Health estimated that as many as 20% to 30% of residents across all age groups have an underlying health condition.
As of Wednesday, there had been 3,309 cases of COVID-19 in Burbank and 97 deaths. It was an increase of 95 cases from Tuesday — a record high — bringing the seven-day average to 61.3 new cases a day, two and a half times the city’s average a month prior.
Dismay as Well as Sympathy
Several residents said on social media that they would report Tinhorn Flats to Public Health and the city’s code enforcement team, arguing the reopening endangers the local community by providing an avenue for the coronavirus to spread.
Public Health said it had received 41 complaints about the restaurant by Thursday afternoon, and Lepejian said the department issued him a $500 fine on Thursday.
But he also claimed that, when he called the Burbank Police Department asking if officers would come to his restaurant if he violated the state’s health order, he was told they would not get involved.
Sgt. Derek Green, a spokesman for the BPD, said in an email that “Burbank Police will still focus on education first and provide advisals to any business not complying. If further action is warranted, the City License and Code, Police Department and L.A. County Public Health Department will work together to address any issues.”
He did not respond to a followup email asking if Lepejian’s account was accurate.
The local Chamber of Commerce and City Council have expressed concern for restaurants languishing under closure orders, with the latter group unanimously voting Tuesday to urge the county Board of Supervisors to reconsider its ban on outdoor dining.
According to a staff report submitted to the City Council, local restaurants surveyed after the county ban went into effect in late November reported at least a 60% reduction in business over the Thanksgiving holiday, claiming losses that ranged from $10,000 to $865,000. All of the businesses surveyed said they had to lay off workers or cut employees’ hours.
Because the state’s health order supersedes the county’s, Burbank’s move is mostly symbolic. A lawsuit against L.A. County succeeded this week, with a judge finding that the public health department had insufficient evidence for the order’s efficacy and did not conduct “an appropriate risk-benefit analysis,” prohibiting it from extending the order beyond Wednesday, Dec. 16. Council members also argued that the surge in COVID-19 cases is due to private gatherings, not outdoor dining.
“We’re asking to be part of this conversation, and we’re asking that we just don’t get hit over the head,” Councilwoman Emily Gabel-Luddy said Tuesday, suggesting that the county allow exceptions for some cities.
The California health order banning in-person dining and restricting retail capacity after intensive care unit capacities fall below 15% will last until at least Dec. 27 in Southern California.
Lepejian admitted that, if officials “put their money where their mouth is” and offered some financial assistance to businesses unable to offer inperson services, they would have more credibility. But he still argued that he would have eventually opened up his restaurant, though he acknowledges that some might not be comfortable with going outside during the pandemic.
Lucas Lepejian, Baret’s 20-year-old son who helps run Tinhorn Flats, admitted that he is a bit worried about the county or city cracking down on the restaurant for reopening, but said there is little left to lose.
“We want everyone and all restaurants to join us,” he added. “It’s a personal and business thing at this point.”