LOS ANGELES — Officials in Northern California on Tuesday closed a second Bay Area In-N-Out Burger restaurant, after employees repeatedly failed to check customers eating indoors for proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a negative coronavirus test result.
The closure is the latest salvo in a conflict between the Southern California-based fast food chain and San Francisco Bay Area public health officials who have enacted some of the strictest COVID-19 rules in the state.
Similar requirements for proof of vaccination are set to take effect Nov. 8 for businesses and restaurants in the city of Los Angeles.
In a statement, Contra Costa Health Services confirmed that the In-N-Out located at 570 Contra Costa Blvd. in Pleasant Hill was forced to close after repeatedly violating county rules.
Arnie Wensinger, In-N-Out's chief legal and business officer, fired back in a statement calling the public health rules intrusive to private businesses.
"We refuse to become the vaccination police for any government," Wensinger said.
The closure comes 12 days after San Francisco's only In-N-Out restaurant was forced to temporarily close for violating a local rule requiring proof of vaccination for indoor patrons. The restaurant, located on Fisherman's Wharf, has since reopened for outdoor dining only.
Los Angeles' impending crackdown could be an important test of the In-N-Out chain's resistance to rules requiring proof of vaccination. The exact number of the chain's locations in L.A. wasn't available, but there are at least 16, mostly in the San Fernando Valley.
The L.A. ordinance, approved earlier this month by the City Council, requires proof of vaccination to eat inside restaurants or to enter shopping malls, movie theaters and other indoor venues. The measure includes escalating penalties for businesses that don't enforce it.
Officials in Contra Costa County, located east of San Francisco and Oakland, said they gave the In-N-Out in Pleasant Hill ample opportunities to comply, but it created a public health hazard by "repeatedly violating" the county order. That order, in effect since Sept. 22, requires restaurants and some other indoor establishments to verify that all customers 12 or older are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or have had a negative coronavirus test within the previous 72 hours.
Officials said the Pleasant Hill location received four citations in recent weeks and had to pay fines totaling $1,750 for violating the order.
Officials said their primary goal is to educate businesses and residents about how to keep themselves and the community safe from COVID-19.
"Most businesses do comply with pandemic safety requirements, but the county has an ordinance that includes a progressive citation structure for businesses that repeatedly violate them," the county said.
In-N-Out can appeal the permit suspension, but the Pleasant Hill restaurant is required to stay closed "until the hazard is abated," public health officials said.
The chain, meanwhile, continues to argue that asking private businesses to enforce rules requiring proof of vaccination amounts to government overreach.
Wensinger acknowledged that employees at the Pleasant Hill restaurant "were not actively demanding vaccine documentation and photo identification" from each indoor patron but said the company is committed to "the highest form of customer service" and disagrees with any government order that forces a private company to "discriminate" against customers.
"It is unreasonable, invasive and unsafe to force our restaurant associates to segregate customers into those who may be served and those who may not, whether based on the documentation they carry or any other reason," he said. "This is clear governmental overreach and is intrusive, improper and offensive."
So far, the San Francisco and Pleasant Hill locations are the only In-N-Outs that have been forced to close, but it appears clashes are escalating between other Northern California restaurants and public health officials.
Contra Costa Health Services confirmed that In-N-Out restaurants in Pinole and San Ramon have received notices of violating the vaccination order.
Whether In-N-Out will continue to be a flashpoint in the discussion over COVID-19 rules is unclear. The strictness of such rules varies by county and city.
Los Angeles' ordinance will effect a wide swath of businesses, from movie theaters to malls, but it will allow patrons to enter indoor venues with proof of a negative COVID-19 test.
City rules in San Francisco and Berkeley do not allow a negative test result to substitute for the vaccination requirement. The orders in those cities don't apply to malls, salons or museums.
The law requiring proof of vaccination or a negative test result in Contra Costa County, the Bay Area's third-most populous, applies to customers of indoor restaurants, bars and gyms.
Los Angeles County, meanwhile, strongly encourages restaurants to check indoor patrons for proof of vaccination but doesn't require it. Stricter rules are in place for organizers of large indoor and outdoor events like concerts and sporting matches, whose staff must check patrons for proof of vaccination or a negative test.
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