Friday, October 23, 2020

Eureka Bar Owner Decries 'Selective Enforcement' After Knowingly, Repeatedly Violating COVID Orders

Posted By on Fri, Oct 23, 2020 at 5:16 PM

The city of Eureka has threatened to fine a local venue as much as $5,000 per violation if it continues with a scheduled burlesque and heavy metal show tomorrow night that would be in violation of state and county COVID-19 health orders, which still prohibit live entertainment performances.
click to enlarge The Siren's Song Tavern in pre-COVID times. - FILE
  • File
  • The Siren's Song Tavern in pre-COVID times.

Eureka Interim City Manager Miles Slattery said city code enforcement officials reached out to Siren’s Song Tavern owner JD Pegg yesterday after the county’s Joint Information Center informed city officials that it had contacted Pegg three times to notify him live performances remain prohibited but the venue had continued to schedule and advertise live shows, including karaoke nights and local bands. The county has tried the education angle to no avail, Slattery said, so the city’s code enforcement unit contacted Pegg to warn he could face fines of up to $5,000 per violation and potentially misdemeanor citations for operation in violation of the county’s health order.

“Hopefully, this gets his attention,” Slattery said. “This guy could care less. It’s just sad to me. First of all, it’s unfair. There’s plenty of other locations that would like to be doing the same but are following the rules. … If they continue to pursue (the show), we’ll have to take further action.”

Reached by the Journal this morning, Pegg, however, contended that if someone is being treated unfairly, it’s him. Striking a defiant tone, Pegg said the state and local orders prohibiting live performances are unfair to venues in comparatively low risk areas of the state, like Humboldt County, and that he’s fallen victim to “selective enforcement” that allows other venues flaunt the rules while he has been repeatedly contacted and threatened with fines.
“You know how much spread we’ve caused? Zero,” he said. “We’ve been doing live events for three fucking months now. Have we caused an outbreak? Has the Fortuna school district that’s been in session for months now? No. … There’s no fucking COVID here. There’s like 17 cases and they’re all at home. They’re not going out for fucking drinks. I don’t deal in hypotheticals, I deal in reality. That’s what all this COVID shit is, is hypothetical.”

The Journal then asked Pegg to clarify whether he believed COVID-19 was real.

“I believe COVID is very real,” he said. “I just know because I can logically look at the data that COVID is not an issue in Humboldt because we’re in a bubble. People are doing what they’re supposed to be doing.”

According to the data released by the county’s Joint Information Center, there had been 561 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Humboldt County as of yesterday, including 36 people who had to be hospitalized at some point in their care and nine COVID-19 related deaths. The latest death announced Monday was a 38-year-old man. (Sheriff William Honsal described him as “fairly healthy” with “underlying conditions,” adding that he was asymptomatic and tested positive for COVID during an autopsy, the results of which remain pending.) Twenty known cases remain active countywide, though Deputy Health Officer Josh Ennis warned yesterday that he believes there is an increasing amount of the disease circulating in the local community, noting a recent uptick in hospitalizations and positing that asymptomatic cases and those with mild symptoms are likely going undetected.

The county has generally declined to identify businesses or establishments linked to any positive cases, so it’s impossible to verify Pegg’s claims about Siren’s Song Tavern and the Fortuna Union High School District not being linked to any confirmed cases.
Humboldt County remains in the state’s “minimal” risk tier, the lowest of four, and has been allowed to reopen bars and increase indoor capacity for other businesses as a result. But state health officials have yet to permit live performances of any type. That’s because COVID-19 transmits through aerosols — or the tiny droplets of saliva liquid emitted when people breathe and talk, which can hang in the air for 20 minutes or more in indoor spaces — and performances are aimed at getting groups people to congregate and linger in a space, which markedly increases the risk of virus spread.

But Pegg contends his events have been safe. He said customers’ temperatures are taken at the door and anyone with a fever is turned away. Plus, he said, he’s set up 36-inch fans at the tavern’s front and back doors to pull in exterior air and blow out interior air in an effort to “bring the elements that are outside inside.” He said he’s also installed an ultraviolet light above the performances stage near a ceiling fan and that “all the air blown through there is instantly sterilized.”

While some studies have shown UV light to be an effective coronavirus disinfectant for surfaces in some situations, none have conclusively shown it to be effective in cleaning air in an inhabited room as a means to prevent the virus’ spread.

Nonetheless, Pegg is adamant that his tavern, which he purchased in July after the previous owner closed it in the face of the pandemic and shelter-in-place orders, is doing everything it can to protect customers should an asymptomatic COVID-19 case enter the bar. (Studies have indicated that as many as 40 percent of COVID-19 cases may experience no symptoms.)

It could also, of course, simply opt not to hold live events but Pegg said that would mean its demise.

“My business is selling beer to people who are there to see live music, and that’s the draw,” he said. “Without that draw, we’re fucking dead.”

And Pegg sees himself and the continued operation of the Siren’s Song as the only thing standing in the way of Eureka becoming a “cultureless, live entertainment desert.”
“This is the last stage in Eureka,” he said. “It’s not the Arkley Center or Center Arts, but it’s someplace 17 year olds have gone for punk shows that they still talk about 10 years later. It’s the nexus for the arts community. It’s a cultural establishment, and that’s more important than a restaurant or a shoe store or a lot of small businesses.”

Unapologetic, Pegg said he’s also giving artists a place to practice their craft and customers the entertainment they thirst for.

“The artists are extremely thankful because all they want to do is perform their art,” he said. “The patrons have been extremely thankful because it’s what they want. The only people who haven’t been thankful are the people sitting at home on Facebook because they have nothing else to do with their lives.”

But county health officials and city code enforcement are clearly not happy either, and Pegg said he’s also heard from the California Department of Alcohol and Beverage Control. (Slattery also noted that other agencies were involved in the effort to wrangle Siren’s Song into compliance.)

ABC spokesperson John Carr said his agency has not taken any enforcement action against Siren’s Song and generally prefers to take an educational approach.

“Since starting work at the beginning of July with the California Office of Emergency Services COVID-19 Task Force, ABC agents have made over 76,000 site visits in California and only issued only 135 citations,” Carr wrote in an email to the Journal.

Like state and county agencies, Slattery said the city of Eureka has generally opted to take an educational approach to violations, noting park employees have been dispatched to break up baby showers and social gatherings at Carson Park and youth baseball league games and practices. When it comes to businesses, Slattery said there have been a few complaints that have been resolved with a friendly phone call explaining the rules, though he said most complaints to the city have come from business owners trying to get mask and social distancing compliance from customers, prompting the city to craft a series of educational window stickers and posters.

Pegg, however, has forced the city’s hand, Slattery said, adding it will absolutely take action if Siren’s Song continues to host events.

In a roughly 40-minute conversation with the Journal, Pegg repeatedly said he feels he’s being treated unfairly, noting that different jurisdictions are taking different approaches to enforcing health orders.

“Selective enforcement is fucking insane,” he said. “This is like the land of the free and the home of everybody’s created equal unless you live in a different town. … The real story here is unequal enforcement. That’s the real story here.”

Pegg pointed to the Arcata Theater Lounge, which in recent weeks has been hosting DJs to play music from its stage.

“ATL is having these giant fucking parties with DJs,” Pegg said. “And they’re advertising way harder than we are.”

Monica Munoz, who handles compliance for ATL, said that’s not accurate. Yes, she said, ATL is hosting DJs some nights, but she said it's doing so under a plan approved by the county. The DJs perform from a stage that’s partitioned off from the rest of the theater, she said, there’s no dance floor and patrons are only allowed to dance at their tables, which are all carefully spaced. Plus, she said, the place has capped capacity at 100 people and increased security, while also eliminating single-ticket sales and requiring customers to book tables.

But asked whether the county explicitly approved live DJs, Munoz said it “just kind of referred us to the state for those regulations” and she’d learned venues in San Francisco were holding similar events. She said that led her to believe they are allowed.

News reports, however, indicate the only sanctioned events going on in the San Francisco Bay Area are outdoors, and some cities have cracked down on those, as well.

The San Francisco International Arts Festival filed a lawsuit against state and local officials challenging the prohibiting on performances under First Amendment grounds, and the governor’s office this week said it would be issuing a directive to permit “performances before audiences of less than 100 individuals in counties such as San Francisco, but requires approval of the safety precautions taken for such performances by the local public health officer.” Reached by the Journal this afternoon, Eureka City Councilmember Leslie Castellano, who represents the ward in which Siren’s Song is located, said she believed the governor’s directive would only apply to outdoor performances at this point. She said she had not been contacted by Pegg.

Regarding whether Saturday’s show would be canceled, Pegg was at first noncommittal when asked, saying, “don’t fucking worry about my plan for Saturday,” but later intoned it would be canceled, which would push the burlesque troupe and heavy metal band he’d booked to perform somewhere else, with no regulation or oversight.

The Journal reached out to Bare Elegance Burlesque Beauties, which had been billed as the event’s prime attraction, along with guest appearances by performers from Dallas, Texas, and Modesto, by email.

“In response to your email, we will not be holding our Metalesque show at Siren Song Tavern,” wrote Elektra Gray, the group’s founder and president. “Instead, we have decided to enjoy the venue before hand and take our event, now a protest, to an outdoor location. Location TBD.”

Pegg, meanwhile, said he made a mistake buying Siren’s Song, which he did because he thought it would be “tragic for it to go out of business and disintegrate.” But without live events, he said he won’t be able to keep it open much longer.

“This town’s fucking dying as it is,” he said. “California has gone overboard.”

His attention turned again to what he deemed unequal enforcement and backward priorities. He said he recently had a couple stop by the tavern, who told him they were in town from San Diego for a family reunion, having booked a big vacation rental.

“I’m more worried about those motherfuckers,” Pegg said. “They’re coming to our place, meaning Humboldt and my establishment, and they’re bringing people from all over the state and country. But because I’m visible, I’m an easy target. It’s like cops busting Black kids with some weed. It allows the authorities to show they’re taking action when they really aren’t doing anything. That’s the shit the enforcement mechanism should be worried about, not 20 people trying to have a good time on a Friday night.”
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Thadeus Greenson

Thadeus Greenson is the news editor of the North Coast Journal.

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