Calif. Wine Country Group Axes COVID-19 Dining Ban Suit

By Joyce Hanson
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Law360 (January 29, 2021, 7:26 PM EST) -- A coalition of California wineries and restaurants has voluntarily dismissed its recently filed suit in state court against Gov. Gavin Newsom and public health officials after they eased outdoor dining restrictions due to COVID-19, saying the group may sue again if the governor reinstitutes stay-at-home orders.

The Wine Country Coalition for Safe Reopening — a group formed in 2020 and comprised of about 60 Napa and Sonoma county restaurants, wineries and related businesses — said Thursday it has withdrawn without prejudice its Jan. 19 suit against Newsom and state Department of Public Health Director Tomás J. Aragón following their Jan. 25 lifting of all regional stay-at-home orders due to the pandemic.

Carl Dene, owner of Sam's General Store in the town of Calistoga and spokesperson for the coalition, said in a statement that the members are gratified that the governor ended the "needless" ban on outdoor dining and wine tasting.

"But we will be ready to refile our lawsuit if the ban is imposed again," Dene said. "We support all efforts to limit the spread of COVID, but there is simply no data that shows outdoor dining and wine tasting contribute to the spread, so we are happy to see the governor following the science."

Newsom's orders had banned all outdoor dining and wine tasting in the Bay Area, including Napa and Sonoma, where most of the coalition's members are based. The members said the orders unfairly hurt restaurants and wineries that had collectively invested millions of dollars to comply with prior state regulations and operate outdoors safely.

"The coalition does not seek to insulate restaurants and wineries from the state's general public health guidelines," according to the Jan. 19 complaint. "Defendants cannot offer a sound evidence-based reason for failing to trust restaurants and wineries to operate in outdoor settings under the state's health guidelines, even while they trust other businesses like malls, big-box retail and liquor shops to operate in far riskier indoor settings."

The suit alleged that the ban on outdoor dining and wine tasting was arbitrary and irrational, and had devastated local businesses and thousands of workers who lost their jobs as cooks, dishwashers, waiters, bussers and pourers.

Since COVID-related restrictions have gone into place, the Calistoga-based coalition's members have seen full-time employment headcount drop by more than 50%, according to the suit.

Representatives for Newsom's office did not immediately respond Friday to a request for comment.

The coalition is represented by Thomas A. Harvey, Fredrick C. Crombie, Philip D.W. Miller and William Abramovitz of Coblentz Patch Duffy & Bass LLP.

Counsel information for Newsom was not immediately available.

The case is Wine Country Coalition for Safe Reopening v. Gavin Newsom et al., case number 21CV000065, in the Superior Court of the State of California, County of Napa.

--Editing by Jay Jackson Jr.

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