In the weeks before the coronavirus took over our lives, Joseph Griffin wasn’t glued to the media checking for updates. The owner of Griffins of Kinsale on Mission Street in South Pasadena was preoccupied with planning for St. Patrick’s Day, traditionally an enormous celebration commemorating Christianity’s arrival in Ireland–the single day during Lent when restrictions on food and alcohol consumption are lifted. Griffin didn’t imagine that before the holiday was over, he would be in anguish over the future of his business, critics would call for the revocation of his license, or that the Health Department would show up just before sunset and persuade him to voluntarily shut the festivities down at once.
For the 7:30 am All You Can Eat Irish Breakfast, he bought an enormous amount of food. For afternoon entertainment, he booked two bands—the Ploughboys at 12:30 and Crimson Crowbar at 3:30. As the crisis ramped up in the days before the gig, Crimson Crowbar promoted their appearance at Griffins with the slogan, “Shed the panic for afternoon entertainment!”
Shortly before the day arrived, Griffin heard “something to the effect” that the Governor wanted restaurants to stay below 50 percent capacity. “Okay,” he thought, “That’s big.” But it wasn’t a law or violation, he told the South Pasadenan News.
Gov. Newsom’s statement came during a March 15 Sunday afternoon press conference in which he directed closure of the state’s bars and nightclubs and to “reduce the current occupancy” at its restaurants by half. Authorities would “reflect on the enforcement side of this, which I am not concerned about,” he emphasized. Newsom said he had the authority to make these provisions mandatory through a “framework of martial law,” but saw no reason to do so because he’d seen “strong and broad” compliance—he called it “socialization in real time”—from both the public and private sectors with the previous COVID-19 executive orders he’d already promulgated.
It may be worth noting that unlike the dozen other COVID-19-related directives the Governor has issued so far this month, the one pertaining to bars and restaurants has not been memorialized as a written executive order.
The next day, Monday the 16th, LA County Health Officer Muntu Davis issued his Order for the Control of COVID-19, requiring social distancing, closure of bars and nightclubs and requiring “all permanent food facilities” to restrict themselves to take-out or delivery service.
Griffin noted that on Monday, other food-serving businesses in town were still operating despite the orders. Nevertheless he told employees to track how many people came through the door. By Tuesday, he’d posted a sign explaining food service was pick-up and delivery only. But he said some customers loitered while waiting for orders and drank beer. He denied reports the place was packed. “For the most part, it was very sparse,” within the 50 percent limit. A County Health Officer who arrived that eveing said about 35 patrons were present.
Griffin argues that while his establishment is known as a pub, it is principally a restaurant. “We serve food” –a requirement for his Type 47 state liquor license, which permits wine and beer sales only if the establishment operates “as a bona fide eating place.”
He also holds a “bars-taverns-wine tasting” busines license from the City of South Pasadena.
Griffins is also licensed by the County Health Department, which during an inspection last November identified seven violations and lowered its overall score from 94 to 90, the lowest a restaurant can have while maintaining a Grade A status. Over a dozen of South Pasadena’s 80 county-licensed restaurants also have a score of 90. None are below 90.
Over at the South Pasadena Police Department, Chief Joe Ortiz was trying to make sense of the flurry of civil orders coming from state and county executives and health departments. Asked by City Councilmember Mike Cacciotti to recount the events of St Patrick’s Day, he said his top priority was the County Order. Ortiz looked upon the situation as an “educational opportunity.” He relied on the Chamber of Commerce to help him spread the word. “The County sent the order to all of us and said, ‘Here are the rules.’ The unfortunate part is they didn’t think past it.” How would the rules be enforced? He tried calling chiefs in some of the bigger cities. Their answer: “’Joe when you find out, let us know.’”
Council members were also getting calls. It was a serious situation. Cacciotti said businesses needed to understand violating the Order was a misdemeanor that can lead to a fine or imprisonment. He said the County’s municipal police chiefs “must ensure compliance and enforcement of the Order.”
The Chief also wanted to make clear to citizens that the Order was from the County, not the City. “We are not out to be giving tickets. We’re not out to be arresting people. We’re not out to be dragging people out of pubs.”
About noon, he got a call about reports the Order was being violated at Griffins.
“This is an opportunity for me to engage someone,” Ortiz told himself, “to let them know that we need to shut them down. The goal isn’t that the city is looking for trouble. The goal is to stop the pandemic.”
Ortiz met with Griffin, who promised to act. But a half hour later, the Chief got another call with the same complaint. “We went back out there again and I think we went back another time and eventually issued him a citation.” The citation requires Griffin to go to court and could cost him up to $1,000.
South Pasadena spokeswoman Rachel McGuire said the case involves a misdemeanor violation of the state Safety and Health Code and is “currently under investigation.” The city assembled a criminal court package and “a criminal complaint is in the process of being filed with the Los Angeles Superior Court.”
But even after the police issued the citation, complaints kept coming, Ortiz told the Council. “We didn’t think far enough ahead. What happens if they don’t react or comply?” Again, he braved the phones, calling the Health Department. “They didn’t have an answer for me.” He called the County Sheriff’s Emergency Operations Bureau, pleading for guidance. He didn’t want to send a deputy to read the Order, “justifying a misdemeanor in progress. Now I’m gonna put my hands on somebody. Bad things are going to happen.
“This is such a rapidly evolving situation,” he told the Council. “There are really no answers and there are precedents being set.”
Griffin doesn’t deny the Chief came out to speak to him, showed him the County Order, and that the cops came back later and spoke to his son Daniel. “It was a cordial conversation,” he said. Griffin told the Chief he was at half capacity. The chief told him he had to close. Griffin read the order, but “it was a repetition of Newsom, a recommendation.”
A little after 4:00 pm, Ortiz finally got through to a director at Public Health. She’d been talking to the Board of Supervisors and they’d decided what to do. He said two Public Health Officers were sent to assist the police.
That’s also about the time one of Josh Albrektson’s social media contacts reported to him that Griffins was refusing to shut down. A South Pasadena physician and surgeon who does radiology via telemedicine, Albrektson has been warning about the Corona Virus in his social media posts since late February.
Incensed that Griffins “put every person here at risk of dying or serious injury,” he marched to the pub. “My purpose was to show how they didn’t want to close down.” Filming through the pub’s windows as he went by, Albrektson approached the door, opened it and by his own account screamed at those inside, “you are all horrible, s—-y people.” He yelled at the bouncer for about five minutes.
As he headed back to report the pub to the police, officers showed up with a clipboard-bearing Health Department official. Albrektson taped the encounter on the sidewalk, irritating the police when he refused to stop. Albrektson posted the tape, further magnifying the controversy. Angry posts popped up over local social media calling Griffins actions “flat out dangerous,” demanding his license. The Tiger, South Pasadena High School’s student paper, reported the kerfuffle in real time.
County Environmental Health Specialist Ashley Nieman asked Griffin’s son if he knew about the Health Officer’s Order. Daniel Griffin said he knew of a standard limiting gatherings over ten people at the bar—the day before the President had issued guidelines including one to “avoid gatherings in groups of more than 10 people.” The younger Griffin spoke to his father, who said that it was the presence of the Health Department that persuaded him how serious the situation was and that he should close down. Daniel went to the stage and announced the closure, which was greeted by guests with a loud murmor of disapproval.
Nieman, who never entered the building, wrote an “inspection” report that listed the action she took as a “voluntary closure” that resulted in a corrective action with a compliance review. That review took place over the phone the next day when County Health officials went over the situation with Griffin. In the report, Nieman recounts some facts about what was going on at the pub and her interection with Daniel Griffin. She quotes at length from the Health Officer Order but does not assert Griffins violated or may have violated it.
Over several days, the County Health Department did not offer any comment on or response to multiple queries about its actions.
In hindsight, Griffin said he understands people’s frustration. The Health Department talked to him at length right after St. Patrick’s Day to explain the danger of contagion. “I did not think I was endangering people. If I’d known the gravity…” He said everything happened so rapidly; the rules were changing every 12 hours.
But he is devastated by the ferocity of the backlash. His children—he has 11 of them— “have seen and heard some of these comments and my wife as well. I don’t feel good about it.” His 14 employees also suffered, he said. “Maybe it’s because it’s an Irish establishment. Maybe that had something to do with it.”
Griffin does not begrudge the chief, who he says is an honorable man who was doing his job. The Department has always been protective of the pub, he adds.
“I’m completely closed now, and I don’t know how this will proceed. It will be tough to rebound.”
The Chief’s account does not give Griffin much to lean on. He says Public Health gave Griffin a warning, “but the warning basically means they are going to be following up later and it can be pretty serious. We could be cancelling or suspending the license to operate in the city.” The Police Department said for the time being Griffin can still operate, as long as he adheres to the take-out/delievery only and other rules under the County Health Officer’s Order.
Returning to the educational theme, Ortiz told the Council that California Alcoholic Beverage Control, which did not previously have a plan in place to deal with such a situation, now does. The Police are following up with the city’s other establishments. “The six and a half hours that the Department went through sending officers out there, issuing citations, working with the Health Department was like a template that I sent out to the other 87 cities” in Los Angeles County. “The chiefs thanked me. At least we know what to do.”
“I’m sure the worst possible day for an Irish pub to have to be shut down” is St. Patrick’s Day said Councilmember Marina Khubesrian. “But unfortunately, we’re in an unprecedented situation.”