Cully Williamson knew he was breaking the law.
Owner of Mary’s Pizza Shack in Rohnert Park, Williamson received a warning the day before the city slapped him with a $1,000 fine for serving food within a tent which lacked adequate ventilation. But to Williamson, his defiance wasn’t about some angst-filled stand against Covid-19 related restrictions. It was about survival.
“The fine was my only way to get my day in court,” Williamson said. “I’ve been talking to the city for months, saying, ‘There had to be some sort of discussion about how outdoor dining is going to continue.’ No one has responded. No one.”
Under California’s public health rules, no more than fifty percent of a tent’s perimeter can be closed to the elements. So, if it’s a square tent, two of its sides must be completely open. No problem, right? Open up the sides and stick in some heaters. Except then Williamson would run right up against an ordinance set by the Sonoma County Fire Marshall which forbids combustible elements, like outdoor propane heaters, from operating within twenty feet of a temporary tent. The two orders leave little room to maneuver as we move deeper into winter and the daily temperature plummets. Outdoor dining represents roughly 30 percent of the revenue for the Rohnert Park Mary’s Pizza Shack. To Williamson, the fine is just one more expense. He claims to have lost over $180,000 this year.
“It just seems like week after week the pressure builds,” Williamson said.
Unfortunately, so too do daily Covid-19 cases. Sonoma County reports that at time of writing there are over 1,700 active cases of Covid-19 within the county’s borders and about 2.26 percent of the population are actively infected or recovered. Experts estimate that to reach herd immunity the disease would have to work its way through about 70 percent of the population. At the county’s current fatality rate of 1.3 percent that would mean approximately 4,498 deaths.
The faster Covid-19 infects the population, the more of a burden we laden on our hospitals; overwhelm them and that estimate of 4,498 deaths will seem rather low. According to the California Department of Public Health, Sonoma County currently has six vacant ICU beds, though its surge capacity is likely much higher.
Covid-19 is a devastating, slow-moving natural disaster, and the CDC reports that individuals who admit to frequent dining in a restaurant, either indoor or outdoor, are twice as likely to test positive for the disease. It’s a fact which led Los Angeles to announce a blanket ban on all outdoor dining on Monday, a ban which could easily be extended California-wide if Governor Gavin Newson feels it necessary.
Which arrives as unwelcome news for Williamson’s 71 employees, most who work part-time. Business is slow. Without support from the federal government Williamson fears he may need to make some cuts.
“If I can’t have outdoor dining through the winter then I’m going to have to lay off more people,” he said. “I’m not even sure I’d make it to the spring.”
Mary’s Pizza and Cully Williamson have been at the forefront with supporting the community and all of the community projects for decades. This is the time to show support by patronizing them.