Seal Beach to educate businesses about COVID rules

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People dine under a street light on Wednesday evening, Jan. 6. Although restaurants and bars are officially limited to take-out only service, some Seal Beach customers are using outdoor dining areas of local business establishments to eat their purchases on-site. Photo by Charles M. Kelly

City to get $77K in grant funds to help local businesses

First in a series.

At this time, Seal Beach officials say they are taking an “educate first” approach to enforcing pandemic related rules.

In related news, the city has acquired some grant money (they just got the news Monday) and staff is working out distribution, according to Community Development Director Les Johnson.

Enforcement issues

For now, for example, restaurants are officially restricted to selling food and drink “to go” only under current pandemic rules. Occupancy of retail businesses is limited. Personal care businesses are supposed to be closed.

Yet restaurants on Seal Beach’s Main Street have been seen providing indoor dining and sometimes people have been seen using tables in the parklets. (Patrons in other cities have also been seen dining indoors and outdoors.)

Paper in the windows of some shops may indicate back-door business activity. (However, construction activities could be heard coming from at least one papered-up business.)

City Manager Jill Ingram said in a telephone interview Monday, Jan. 4. that the direction from council was to educate local business owners.

However, Rob Jahncke, owner of Javatinis Espresso and president of the Seal Beach Chamber of Commerce, said city officials had told him they are increasing enforcement.

At least one local business has received a letter from the city telling them they are in violation of the rules.

Needless to say, some folks are confused.

“There’s frustration out there,” said Jahncke.

The confusion over enforcement is not limited to Seal Beach.

For example, Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes has indicated his deputies would not enforce pandemic rules. Yet the District Attorney’s Office recently filed charges against a Costa Mesa business for “one misdemeanor count of violating and neglecting to obey a lawful order and regulation,” according to a recent statement from that agency.

Here in Seal Beach, Jahncke said the Chamber wants to support businesses without condoning businesses that are breaking the rules.

Last week, the Sun asked the mayor and the city manager why the city was enforcing an order when other communities were not.

“Our City has been consistent in following guidelines and mandates that have been established by both the State of California and Orange County, since the very beginning of the pandemic,” wrote Mayor/District One Councilman Joe Kamick in a Dec. 29 email. (The Sun received the email after editorial deadline.)

“The City Council has worked with Staff to allow our restaurants to open for service whenever possible. We are keenly aware of the emotional and financial pain that so many in our community are experiencing, but we must do our part to reduce the spread of the Covid virus until we can see the results of the vaccination,” Kalmick.

For her part, on Monday, Ingram said she could not comment on what other cities were doing.

Following Monday, Jan. 4, phone interviews with both Community Development Director Johnson and the city manager, Johnson sent the Sun an email on Jan. 5.

“I also spoke with City Manager Ingram following your conversation with her late yesterday afternoon. The following is in response to the questions posed with both inquiries,” Johnson wrote.

“Educating our business community on the most recent Stay at Home Order has been the directive provided by City Council,” Johnson wrote.

Indoor and outdoor dining at restaurants, as well as personal care services (hair salons, nail salons, etc.) are not allowed to operate under the latest State Order. Staff has been in direct contact with a number of Seal Beach businesses in regard to what is and is not allowed under the current State Order,” Johnson wrote.

“The vast majority, greater than 90% of our local Seal Beach businesses are complying with the most recent State Order,” Johnson wrote.

Ingram gave a similar estimate during Monday’s phone interview.

“Staff is generally monitoring this situation in addition to responding to inquiries and complaints received,” Johnson wrote.

On Monday, Ingram told the Sun that people have been filing complaints with the city government about businesses that are not obeying the rules. She said other residents are making complaints directly to the Orange County Heath Care Agency.

Ingram pointed out that the situation was not fair to businesses that were complying with the rules.

Ingram said staff was out now, talking to local businesses.

What is the city doing to help businesses?

Community Development Director Johnson also reported that Seal Beach will get $77,000 in grant money from Orange County that is to be specifically used to support local small businesses. Additional information regarding the use and distribution of these funds is forthcoming.

“On December 30th, [the] State launched a small business grant program that provides $475 million in funding that is being administered by the State of California,” wrote Seal Beach Community Development Director Johnson.

“The program provides grants between $5,000 and $25,000 to qualifying businesses. There will be two rounds of funding ($237.5 million each round) with the application deadline for Round 1 closing January 13th. The dates for Round 2 have yet to be released,” Johnson wrote.

“Additional information can be found at www.careliefgrant.com,” Johnson wrote.

Chamber President Jahncke said he applied for the state grant for his own business. He said the state program has been expanded to include non-profits and the Chamber was working on its own grant application.

The Sun asked if Seal Beach officials were considering rent assistance for businesses.

“One of the main purposes of the Seal Beach Small Business Relief Grant Program was to assist with overhead expenses, such as rent assistance, utilities, etc.,” Johnson wrote.

“In addition to the City’s Program and the current State Small Business Grant Relief Program, we remain hopeful that additional Federal and State funding will be allocated for small business assistance that includes utilization of these funds for rent assistance,” Johnson wrote.

Readers may or may not remember that in April 2020, the City Council approved a moratorium on residential and business evictions.

The moratorium is set to last for the length of the local emergency. (Other California cities put a specific expiration date on their rental moratoriums, which required them to either extend the moratoriums or allow them to expire.)

The Sun asked City Attorney Craig Steel if the moratorium applied to storage rentals.

“Unfortunately, the answer to your question is ‘it depends,’” Steel wrote in a Jan. 5 email.

“The moratorium protects ‘occupancies’ under basic landlord-tenant law, and prevents ‘evictions’ for non-payment of rent due to COVD-19 hardships. The language of rental agreements for storage units can really say anything the parties want them to say but, in my limited experience, most do not provide for ‘occupancy’ by a tenant,” Steel wrote.

“Usually a customer pays some monthly fee for the use of some space to store stuff. That kind of agreement, not creating an occupancy, would probably not be protected by the City’s moratorium and it was not intended to be. Ultimately, a court would have to determine whether the ordinance protects a particular storage facility renter based on what the individual contract says,” Steel wrote.

“Further, the ordinance protects ‘evictions.’ The Civil Code has processes that relate to selling stuff that has been abandoned or confiscated due to non-payment. The City’s ordinance doesn’t have anything to do with that process,” Steel wrote.

Editor’s note: The Sun would like to hear from business owners and employees about their efforts to survive the current economic environment. Email your stories to editor@sunnews.org and CC editor2@sunnews.org.