In a February YouTube video posted amid the statewide lockdown, Kurt Hixenbaugh urged people to visit his wine and beer bar and enjoy its new beer, named Defiance, indoors. “Freedom is delicious,” he says while taking a sip.  | Credit: Courtesy

A former police sergeant turned wine bar owner is the first person in Santa Barbara County to be criminally charged with violating COVID-19 health orders.

Kurt Hixenbaugh, 49, faces four misdemeanor counts for refusing to close Vino et Amicis, located in Old Town Orcutt, during the statewide shutdown that was in effect this winter. Each charge carries a maximum penalty of six months in jail and/or a $1,000 fine.

The District Attorney’s Office filed the complaint after an investigation by the state’s Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, which could also revoke the location’s alcohol license.

While Santa Barbara authorities had previously filed a handful of civil cases against businesses ― mainly gyms ― that had refused to close early in the pandemic, Hixenbaugh and Vino et Amicis are the first in the county to be criminally prosecuted.

In December, Hixenbaugh made no secret of his intention to ignore the latest lockdown, declaring in a YouTube video that Governor Gavin Newsom’s stay-at-home order was misguided and unfair to small businesses. “We’re gonna defy that order,” he said in his six-minute statement. “We don’t agree with it. We think it’s time that people start taking a stand on this, and I hope others will follow.”

Hixenbaugh emphasized that he knew COVID-19 was “real” and that it was “dangerous for certain people.” Even though the bar would remain open, Hixenbaugh said, he pledged to uphold social distancing and mask requirements and maintain a limited capacity. It was Newsom’s insistence on tying Santa Barbara County’s tier metrics to the rest of Southern California that frustrated him, Hixenbaugh said. “It doesn’t make sense,” he declared.

Hixenbaugh goes on to falsely claim, however, that “the data doesn’t support that bars and restaurants are where you get COVID. There’s nothing to prove that.” Multiple studies, including one published by Johns Hopkins University and another by Stanford University, found a clear correlation between restaurant and bar openings and the spread of the virus.

On his personal Facebook page, Hixenbaugh also frequently shares posts suggesting that people have been brainwashed into believing the dangers of COVID-19, and that the government’s health orders aren’t meant to protect but to lull the populace into a state of complacency and dependency. In the comments section, friends cheered his decision to brush off the state rules. “Keep up the good work!” says one. “Two words, one finger to the County DA,” says another.

In a second YouTube video, Hixenbaugh explains that one of Vino et Amicis’s beers, which had originally been named “F-COVID,” was being rebranded as “Defiance.” “The boot on our throat from Sacramento is killing our businesses,” he said, inviting customers to return to the bar and enjoy its indoor service. “Come on down and have a glass of Defiance,” he says, taking a sip. “Freedom is delicious.”

Hixenbaugh last made news reports in 2017 when, as a member of the San Luis Obispo Police Department, he publicly defended a colleague who claimed sexual assault victims frequently “conjured up” reports of rape after consuming too much alcohol. He blamed the media for taking his colleague’s statements out of context.

Hixenbaugh has been ordered to appear in Santa Maria Superior Court on April 29 for an arraignment on his four misdemeanor charges.

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