Opinion: California restaurants need protection from COVID lawsuits to reopen safely

The restaurants at the Gaslamp on Fifth Avenue have set up restaurants across the street. Photo by Chris Stone

California restaurant owners and employees celebrated the end of strict shutdowns and began the process of reopening. While California remains the only state in the nation to continue banning indoor dining, most of us are busy cooking, serving, and — most importantly — cleaning for our valued customers.

Unfortunately, our problems are not solved.

Restaurant owners have been considering potential COVID-related lawsuits for years. A single lawsuit could mean, once again, closed doors and fired employees – this time permanently. In short, we are not protected.

As Sacramento politicians constantly remind us, California is the world’s fifth-largest economy. Yet these same politicians seem to forget that the economy is fueled by millions of small businesses responsible for tens of millions of jobs. Our leaders in Sacramento have left corporations wide open to COVID-related litigation that promises lawyers massive salaries, but jeopardizes the survival of businesses and the jobs they support.

Unfortunately, the restaurants have it worse than most. Already low and shrinking profit margins, coupled with the outsized negative effects of lockdowns, are hanging by a thread. As a chef and restaurant owner, I have already witnessed massive and permanent staff cuts across the industry, with take-out and curbside pickup becoming the new norm. And as consumer habits shift away from dining out, nearly all restaurants are struggling to cope.

Now add chases to the mix. Between various waves of lockdowns and struggles to pay employees, and back and forth between indoor and outdoor dining and table sizes, avocados are spinning like sharks in water. Plaintiffs’ attorneys are looking for clients who have had COVID-19. Restaurants, especially those that are small and family-owned, are easy targets.

The big chains can afford lawyers. Mom and dad places can’t. Imagine investing your life savings in a family restaurant and then having to pay large settlements up front simply because you can’t afford to go to court. They cannot afford legal representation or expert witnesses to testify that a particular measure was flawless in preventing transmission of the coronavirus. Many will simply give up and declare bankruptcy.

Research by law firm Littler Mendelson found nearly 2,000 COVID-related liability lawsuits have been filed since the pandemic began. These numbers have steadily increased as the pandemic has dragged on. Where one lawyer succeeds, many others follow.

At this point, if you think the defendants are innocent until proven guilty in the United States, your legal acumen is impressive. Unfortunately, in California, companies now have to prove they didn’t give someone COVID-19 in these cases, no matter how baseless a complainant’s case may be. Providing this proof can be nearly impossible. Even public health experts agree that nothing can truly mitigate the spread of the virus with 100% effectiveness.

So we end up with two results. Either the restaurants choose to open their doors, operate under current health and safety guidelines and risk being sued. Or we self-impose lockdowns and hope to have a sufficient safety net to survive the pandemic.

Thank goodness we now have the opportunity to open more fully. But the legal troubles that befall us are an insult to all the chefs, restaurateurs, waiters, waitresses and other staff who heroically serve customers and earn a living.

State lawmakers have the legal authority to grant immunity to restaurants and businesses. They must act under that authority and anticipate civil liability for COVID-related claims. Communities across the country have mobilized to buy and eat local. We need lawmakers to step up to get the job done for small businesses.

Andrew Gruel is the CEO and executive chef of Slapfish, a Huntington Beach-based seafood restaurant franchise, and a judge and host on the Food Network. He wrote this column for CalMatters, a public interest journalism company committed to explaining how the California State Capitol works and why it matters.

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