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


March 3, 2020

California restaurant owners and employees celebrated the end of strict closures and began the process of reopening. While California remains the only state in the country to continue to ban indoor dining, most of us are back cooking, serving and most importantly cleaning for our valued customers.

Unfortunately, our problems are not over.

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

As politicians in Sacramento constantly remind us, California is the fifth world 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 businesses wide open to COVID-related litigation that promises massive salaries for lawyers, but risking the survival of the businesses and the jobs they support.

Unfortunately the restaurants are worse than most. Already low and declining profit margins, coupled with the disproportionate negative effects of bottlenecks, hold us by a thread. As a chef and restaurant owner, I have seen massive and permanent downsizing across the industry before, with take out and curbside pickups becoming the new normal. And as eating habits shift away from dining out, nearly every restaurant is struggling to cope.

Now add chases to the mix. Between various waves of blockages and difficulty paying employees, and back and forth between indoor and outdoor dining and the size of tables, lawyers are spinning like sharks in water. Lawyers for the plaintiffs are looking for clients who have had COVID-19. Restaurants, especially those that are small and family-friendly, are easy targets.

The big chains can afford lawyers. Mom and Pop places can’t. Imagine investing your savings in a family restaurant and then being forced to pay large settlements up front just 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 to prevent the transmission of the coronavirus. Many will give up and declare bankruptcy.

The research carried out by the Littler Mendelson Law Firm found that nearly 2,000 COVID-related liability lawsuits had been filed since the start of the pandemic. These numbers have steadily increased as the pandemic has spread. When one lawyer is successful, many more 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 did not give someone COVID-19 in these cases, no matter how baseless a plaintiff’s case may be. Providing this proof can be almost impossible. Even public health experts agree that nothing can really mitigate the spread of the virus with 100% effectiveness.

So we end up with two results. The two restaurants choose to open their doors, following current health and safety guidelines, and face possible legal action. Or we put ourselves in lockdowns and hope we have enough safety net to survive the pandemic.

Thank goodness we now have the opportunity to open up more fully. But the legal issues that come our way is an insult to all the hard-working chefs, restaurateurs, waiters, waitresses and other employees who heroically serve customers and earn a living.

State legislators have the legal power to grant immunity to restaurants and businesses. They must act on this authority and anticipate civil liability for COVID-related claims. Across the country, communities have come together to shop and eat local. We need lawmakers to come together to get the job done for small businesses.

Andrew Gruel is the CEO and Chief Executive Officer 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 service journalism firm committed to explaining how the California State Capitol works and why it matters.

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