Gerry Kent, owner of the PUBlic House in Old Town Temecula, posted a video, Dec. 7, expressing his thoughts about California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Dec. 5 stay-at-home order.
“I’m conflicted, super conflicted,” Kent said. “What do I think about the shutdown? I think (expletive). I mean this is going to hurt – not just the business – but the staff. I mean, logic and common sense tells me that any restaurant that was adhering to the purple tier is definitely not contributing to the spike. Restaurants have been managing germs and all kinds of bacteria for years. It’s what we do. We keep you safe.
“The real issue here is the participants, me and you. It’s so important that we give a (expletive). “That American freedom that – I want to live free and not live in fear – I’ve literally seen and heard that everywhere. It’s not free. Freedom has never been free. It takes some sacrifice to get there.
“It’s mind-boggling but the last few days have basically been 9/11 in terms of loss of life, human life, our friends, our family, our loved ones, our haters, all of them, but still human. Why does it seem like nobody gives a (expletive)?” he said.
His video, he said, was meant to be a rallying cry to the community to adhere to the lockdown orders and, again, help slow the curve of COVID-19, which has exploded in Riverside County over the past month.
He also announced that the business was setting up a GoFundMe account for staff members to help offset the loss that they were going to feel as the Old Town Temecula business shifted to takeout only.
They are offering 50% off their pop-up menu items to any customer who is staffed at a hospital or unemployed.
Meanwhile, many businesses and restaurants in Old Town Temecula openly defied the orders, continuing to serve customers seated inside and outside of their establishments.
Some openly advertised their defiance of the orders on social media. FOX Los Angeles taped a piece titled “It’s business as usual in Old Town Temecula.”
A few days later, Kent posted an open letter to Riverside County Public Health that said, “When does the ‘education’ process start? Considering it seems most restaurants are open for on-site service, indoor and outdoor. I’m sure you see the numbers. If we aren’t going to enforce needed mitigation on the people and we aren’t going to do it to the businesses … What role will Riverside Health Department (have) to keep people from dying?
“We are connected! I wish no harm on businesses that are open. I do understand this whole thing has been crushing to many, but the way I see it, businesses could last three weeks … but I doubt very much they will survive into the first and second quarter of 2021. I beg you to get in the game here to keep this pandemic and our local community under some control before it’s too late.”
That letter set off a firestorm of criticism on social media as well as support.
Not long after, several restaurants that remained open to in-person dining in the area were reportedly contacted by Alcohol Beverage Control and ordered to close their doors and end in-person dining.
Several have complied and announced they switched to takeaway only, while others continued to host diners in defiance of the orders.
The letter, as well as the ABC crack down on Old Town Temecula restaurants acting in defiance of the orders, sparked a backlash against Kent and his restaurant with commenters making a leap to blame him for the ABC’s actions.
“The owner has a hand in getting restaurants shut down and then tries to use his employees as victims,” one commenter said. “I’m not buying it. PUBlic House is not the victim. PUBlic House is the perpetrator. You reap what you sow…”
“Look at the mess he has caused!” another commenter said. “He might as well just close his restaurant. His staff is being harassed when it is him who should be and his place will be bankrupt in no time anyway. Shame on this guy! The only person to blame is the horrible, snake owner!”
“I will never eat there. Snitch!!!” another said on social media.
According to Kent, he never called ABC, didn’t “turn anyone in” and he’s personally received death threats. Employees have been harassed and he’s been called a “rat” repeatedly, he said.
“I just think it’s unfortunate as a grand total,” he said in a phone interview. “I mean, if there’s any time we should be working together, it should be right now in my opinion.”
He said they have turned the comments section off on some of their social media accounts to quell the negativity, even if it means he won’t get to read all the comments of support the business is receiving as well.
He said he was in contact with the health department but did not turn any businesses in.
“I had been in contact with them through this whole time,” Kent said. “I’d reached out to them in the beginning when we first kind of started opening, offering some ideas about how it would be a good idea to at least offer some direction for restaurants and how we might manage staff. Because we’re basically putting staff out there, each of them essentially seating, 50 to 100 people each.
“I was just offering ideas for, like, how can we manage testing? Every year people have to renew their food handler’s card. It could be the same kind of thing. It was (meant as) something, anything, anything to kind of get moving with keeping the economy open versus what we were doing,” he said.
He maintained that he wanted to get some guidance and give some input on how restaurants can best handle the situation, not turn anyone in.
His best guess is that the county health department heard all the commotion about restaurants being open and kicked the can down the road to ABC or California’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration to be handled by their strike teams.
Valley News reached out to several Old Town Temecula restaurant and bar owners to comment on the shutdown orders, and a couple businesses declined to comment while others didn’t respond to requests.
Kent said the controversy has gone so far he had a mother contact him about a week ago asking how to get a restaurant to adhere to the shutdown mandates.
“I told her ‘I don’t know,’” he said. “I only reached out to the health department, for, like, what level of standards are we going to move forward with? I didn’t reach out to ABC or Cal OSHA.”
He said he also heard from one of his employees that he was responsible for a Menifee restaurant being closed down.
“I was like, ‘Oh my god, this is just out of control,” he said.
Jeff Pack can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.