The Reopen San Diego Small Business Coalition is pushing to file suit against the state of California because, according to Pine Valley House restaurant owner and spokeswoman Nica Knight, “our constitutional rights are being violated” and the ruling to close some businesses is “arbitrary and capricious”.
“As an organization, we’re working to file a federal lawsuit. A lot of people have the perspective that lawsuits that have tried and failed but each suit has targeted nuances. In San Diego, there has not been an unpacking of the Constitution,” Knight said.
Attorney Gary Kreep, a self-described Constitutionalist, has taken on the case pro bono as one of several similar suits being pursued by the California Constitutional Rights Foundation.
Knight is quick to point out she does not necessarily share the same political beliefs as Kreep, who was issued a public censure for misconduct in August 2017 while serving in an elected position as a judge of the Superior Court of San Diego County. However, she said, the situation transcends political parties.
“There’s a problem here and the problem isn’t party politics, the problem is the unfettered power being wielded unfairly and inappropriately by some leaders,” Knight said.
“I am at risk. So, why would I even mention whether or not the restrictions are an issue of constitutionality? Because the way the restrictions are developed and applied are unconstitutional,” Knight said.
She and other coalition members loosely agree that the reason restaurants and salons have been targeted for closures is because a framework for inspection already exists in those industries.
“You look at what the state put out as safety measures and the 20-second hand wash is industry standard for restaurants and has been for 25 years. Sanitizing tabletops has been standard for decades. The processes already exist for our industry— we are already the arbiters of health and safety so we are easy to come after,” Knight said.
To illustrate her point, she described how a ketchup bottle at her Pine Valley restaurant has to be removed from the table after use and taken to a sanitation station, sanitized and air-dried before reuse by a different party yet that same bottle of ketchup could be touched by any number of customers at a local Walmart without ever leaving the shelf.
“I don’t see anyone requiring customers to sign in at those big box stores, there’s no tracing happening. Restrictions like those result in inequitable treatment of our small businesses and that is what makes it unconstitutional,” Knight said.
As long as big box stores, large retailers and airlines continue to operate, they are perpetuating the risk of exposure and closing restaurants “makes us a sacrificial lamb” while accomplishing nothing, Knight said.
While pursuing a court case, she and other restaurant owners throughout San Diego county have posted signage indicating they are participating in a peaceful protest. They have continued to follow the same state-mandated safety precautions that were implemented following a July reopening: distancing between guests, extra sanitizing, mask enforcement and other measures.
Marieta’s Restaurant owner Maricella Lopez said the peaceful protest approach is going well at their Santee, El Cajon and Alpine locations.
“We’re serving people with the same regulations as when we had partial reopenings and a lot of our customers are happy to dine on the patio instead of doing to-go orders,” Lopez said.
She said her own parents are elderly and her family is careful to distance but she believes people need to take their own precautions according to individual situations rather than relying on mandated closures that unnecessarily target small businesses.
Some of the employees who work out of their Alpine location, which opened in 2019 have been with the company since her father opened the first branch of the family business in La Mesa back in 1986.