Credit: Courtesy

As Santa Barbara County battles against its third wave of the coronavirus, reporting 643 active cases Friday and 140 total deaths, Solvang is actively flouting Governor Gavin Newsom’s latest stay-at-home order. The order closed all in-person dining, hotels, and wineries and breweries ― the types of businesses the Danish-themed tourist town lives on.

On Monday, the city council voted to defy the state edict, which applies to the entire Southern California region, including Los Angeles. Mayor Ryan Toussaint filed the emergency motion. It was approved unanimously. “As of tonight, they can go about their business,” said Councilmember Daniel Johnson of the restaurants and bars lining downtown’s Copenhagen Drive. 

“People can’t keep getting kicked like this,” said Councilmember Robert Clarke, complaining Solvang and Santa Barbara County shouldn’t be lumped with Los Angeles and its spiking caseload. “Maybe we need to rename all our restaurants French Laundry,” he quipped, alluding to Newsom’s famously hypocritical close-quarters dinner at an upscale Napa restaurant.

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Clarke also suggested the governor’s order would last longer than the three weeks it currently dictates. “If anybody thinks this is going to be three weeks, you’re smoking something,” Clarke said. “The city needs to do something to keep these businesses open. I’ll take the heat wherever it comes from.”

Councilmembers Jim Thomas and Karen Waite raised concerns about the liability of such an openly defiant move. City Attorney Chip Wullbrandt said unless Solvang actively prevented the enforcement of Newsom’s order, he didn’t see any glaring legal issues. The Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office, the law enforcement agency with jurisdiction over Solvang, hasn’t shown an appetite to issue citations, he pointed out.

The cities of Redondo Beach and Manhattan Beach are making similarly subversive moves, Wullbrandt said. They even declared their outside restaurant tables public spaces, so take-out diners could sit there without fear of breaking the law. So is San Mateo, a much larger community. One of the state’s Superior Courts has already ruled Newsom’s order unlawful, Wullbrandt said, though he didn’t say which.

Before the 5-0 vote, Johnson pushed for Solvang to act quickly and not wait for the Santa Barbara County government to take a more regional stand. “You either do it now and open things up, or you don’t do it at all,” he said. “Because by the time you do it with letters and talking to the county… I mean, this is government, and it’s going to take forever.”

Toussaint, who said little during the meeting, issued his own statement afterward: “Significant concerns about the latest round of business shutdowns were expressed by residents, business representatives, and our council,” he said. “The community of Solvang has done a great job at being mindful, safe, and responsible while keeping our local economy going during these challenging times. The current order by the state is ill-conceived, unnecessary, and, quite frankly, negligent when it comes to protecting our community in a safe, balanced, and sane manner.”

Tracy Beard, executive director of the Solvang Chamber of Commerce, touted the city’s relatively low COVID-19 case count in her own arguments to ignore Newsom and keep businesses open. “We have had half a million people come through Solvang over the summer,” she said. “We must be doing something right in this town. I don’t understand why we’re not open.”

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