San Diego to fight ruling letting strip clubs stay open

While California’s new stay-at-home order has barred restaurant dining, shuttered salons and kept church services outside, two strip clubs in San Diego are still welcoming patrons nightly, protected by a court order

SAN DIEGO — While California’s new stay-at-home order has shut down restaurant dining, shuttered salons and kept church services outside, two strip clubs in San Diego are still welcoming patrons nightly, protected by a court order.

San Diego County officials on Wednesday voted 3-2 to appeal the judge’s ruling that has allowed Pacer Showgirls International and Cheetahs Gentleman’s Club to stay open after the establishments sued the county and state over being ordered to close their doors.

The judge issued a preliminary injunction Nov. 6, protecting the establishments from enforcement actions by state and local officials, though the businesses must still adhere to a 10 p.m. curfew and close early. County officials said they will wait to see if the judge lifts his injunction at a hearing next week given the new stay-at-home order. If not, supervisors vowed to appeal.

The adult entertainment venues sued the county in October after officials deemed strip clubs a non-essential business and ordered them to close indoor operations amid spiraling cases that moved San Diego into the state’s top tier of purple for restrictions.

This week, San Diego along with most of the state was shut down even further as hospital bed capacity in intensive care units fell to dangerously low levels.

The clubs say they are operating safely by keeping dancers six feet or more apart and requiring everyone wear masks. Steve Hoffman, the attorney for Cheetahs, said the business consulted with coronavirus experts who said there is no evidence of increased risk if dancing is allowed.

County officials said that’s not enough to comply with the state order, which bars members of different households from gathering.

“I’m guessing most folks aren’t going there with all the members of their household, so you have multiple households interacting together in a high-risk setting and so we ordered them closed,” Supervisor Nathan Fletcher told reporters Wednesday.

Jason Saccuzzo, the lawyer representing Pacers, said its safety measures exceed those recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention by separating performers and audience members at least 15 feet (4.6 meters) apart. He said he knows of no coronavirus case being linked to either strip club.

He said officials are not allowed to disregard First Amendment rights even in times of a pandemic.

“The right of free expression applies not only to so-called ‘strip clubs,’ but to all live performers in California,” he said in an email to The Associated Press on Thursday. “Unfortunately, the county has singled out adult entertainment venues for closure without any proof that live adult entertainment has resulted or will result in COVID-19 transmission.”

Saccuzzo said he hopes the actions by the strip clubs will help other businesses win their battles as well “against the arbitrary and unconstitutional restrictions.”

Amid the recent surge in virus cases, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom last week divided the state into five regions and said his administration would use intensive care unit capacity in each one as a trigger for widespread closures.

That trigger was met this weekend in the two regions and five Bay Area counties that adopted the measures as a precaution, putting the vast majority of the state’s residents under stay-at-home-orders. The move has been decried by many small business owners and residents weary of the pandemic.

The explosive rise in infections began in October and is being blamed largely on people ignoring safety measures and socializing with others.

Under the measures, schools that are currently open can continue to provide in-person instruction. Retailers including supermarkets and shopping centers can operate with just 20% capacity while restaurant dining and hair and nail salons must close.

The order has been particularly stinging to small businesses that have struggled to survive over nearly a year in which they were repeatedly ordered to close then allowed to reopen but with complex safety precautions. Many business owners have said they can’t afford to comply and questioned whether the virus was really spreading at their locations.

A California judge last month rejected a plea to temporarily lift bans on indoor activity on behalf of thousands of restaurants and gyms in San Diego County, California’s second-largest. Superior Court Judge Kenneth Medel said that the potential harm from undercutting the state’s COVID-19 response outweighed damage to the affected businesses.

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Associated Press writer Elliot Spagat contributed to this report.