Restaurant owner says she’s broke after spurning COVID rules; judge agrees to toss charges

A Long Beach restaurant owner who refused to stop serving customers during one of the worst stretches of the pandemic made a personal plea Friday morning, asking a Superior Court judge to spare her from 20 misdemeanor charges alleging she spurned COVID rules.

Through tears, Dana Tanner, 42, told Judge Christopher J. Frisco she’s working as a fitness instructor and bartender to pay off loans, sales taxes and other debts that have piled up since losing her Fourth Street restaurant, Restauration.

Instead of letting the criminal proceedings continue, Tanner and her attorney asked Frisco to divert the case, essentially agreeing to dismiss charges without a conviction if Tanner meets certain requirements.

As Frisco weighed this, he called Tanner’s conduct disturbing. She admitted to using a pirated gas line to keep her kitchen running after the city cut hers off, although she denied hooking it up herself. And, at one point, Tanner said, she encouraged hundreds of other local businesses to join her in flouting coronavirus rules even as hospitals prepared to ration care in case patients overwhelmed them.

In the throes of the pandemic, other restaurant owners faced the same prospects of losing their livelihoods, but they didn’t resort to breaking the law, Frisco said.

“Those people lost everything, and I guess in an ironic twist of fate, by not obeying the law, you lost everything too, right?”

“I did,” Tanner replied.

It was a close call, Frisco said, but he granted Tanner’s request for judicial diversion. He set aside the criminal charges and promised to dismiss them a year from now if Tanner pays $5,019.89 to the city of Long Beach, performs 40 hours of community service and avoids breaking any laws until Feb. 21, 2023.

Dana Tanner, owner of Restauration, wipes a tear as she talks about her business in the months before it shut down in Long Beach on January 25, 2021. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

The City Prosecutor’s office previously told Frisco that it cost Long Beach $28,471.30 to investigate the full spectrum of Tanner’s alleged crimes, but after a conversation with the attorneys in his chambers, the judge ordered Tanner to repay only the cost of crews’ emergency response to the gas leak sparked by Restauration’s pirated utility line, a figure that amounted to $5,019.89.

The only other business in Long Beach to face criminal charges for breaking COVID-19 rules, the Crunch Fitness gym in Bixby Knolls, paid more than that—about $10,000 in penalties—after pleading guilty to four misdemeanor counts.

The decision to essentially do away with Restauration’s criminal case marks a major turning point in the saga of the rogue restaurant, which has stretched on for more than a year.

Authorities first tried to crack down on Restauration when Tanner began advertising an outdoor New Years’ Eve party on Dec. 31, 2020. At that time, outdoor dining was banned in Long Beach and across LA County because the thousands of daily COVID-19 cases were threatening to overwhelm hospitals.

Tanner and her employees said they stayed open as a matter of survival, arguing takeout orders weren’t enough to sustain them. But as Tanner encouraged other businesses to join her in spurning the rules, the penalties mounted. Ultimately, the city pulled her health permit and charged her with 20 misdemeanors.

Tanner said in April that she and city officials tried to negotiate a way for her to reopen legally, but, ultimately, she closed the restaurant permanently instead of shutting her doors for six months, admitting wrongdoing and paying off all her fines and fees as the city requested.

A Long Beach police officer and Gas Department employee walk past Restauration as they make their way around the back of the building to examine the gas connection, Sunday, Jan. 24. 2020. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

On Friday, Tanner told Frisco that the ordeal made her a pariah.

She was “called a murderer in the city” and told that her kids should die of COVID, according to Tanner, who has two young children, one of whom has autism.

She told Frisco she started her own business so she could have them with her at the restaurant while juggling school and therapy.

After a fire forced her to shut down in 2018 and the first wave of coronavirus closures in 2020, Tanner said she couldn’t face the prospect of telling her employees they were out of a job once again.

“I felt it was my right to operate my business,” she said.

Frisco pushed her repeatedly on this, asking why she deserved to violate the law without criminal consequence.

“When other people did comply and lost their restaurants and lost everything they had …. why were you different? Why is your case unique?” he said from the bench. “Why is it you did what you did? What sets you apart from everybody else? They obeyed and you didn’t.”

Frisco accused Tanner of “snubbing your nose at the establishment,” but ultimately, he said, Tanner’s fear that she wouldn’t be able to provide for her family or her employees—who she viewed as extended family—convinced him to grant her request for diversion.

“I understand desperate times call for desperate measures, and that’s what you did,” he said, noting that Tanner had no prior criminal record.

Despite Frisco doing away with Tanner’s criminal case for the time being, there’s still more legal drama surrounding Restauration.

Tanner sued Long Beach last year, asking a judge to compel the city to return her health permit, arguing officials hadn’t provided enough evidence that shutting down outdoor dining actually slowed the spread of COVID-19.

With Restauration already closed for good, it’s unclear what will happen when that civil case returns to court in June.

Bixby Knolls Crunch Fitness pleads guilty to violating coronavirus health orders this summer

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Jeremiah Dobruck is managing editor for the Long Beach Post. He began his journalism career in 2007 as an intern at Palos Verdes Peninsula News and has worked for The Forum Newsgroup in New York City, the Daily Pilot and the Press-Telegram.
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