Judge drops $5,000 penalty for restaurant owner who defied COVID rules

The Long Beach restaurant owner who refused to close during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic was granted a reprieve in her criminal case Monday when a judge agreed to dismiss the charges without requiring her to pay a $5,019 penalty she owed.

Dana Tanner, who owned Restauration on Fourth Street, had been facing 20 misdemeanors for flouting COVID-19 rules that banned all in-person dining in January 2021 when hundreds of Long Beach residents were hospitalized and dozens were dying each week from the disease. Tanner caught the attention of authorities when she advertised a New Year’s Eve party, encouraged others to join her in defying the dining ban and even used a pirated gas line to keep her kitchen open after the city shut off her utilities.

In February this year, Judge Christopher J. Frisco agreed to divert the case, essentially sparing Tanner from having to face the criminal charges, if she met certain requirements that included performing 40 hours of community service and paying back the $5,019 it cost emergency crews to disconnect the illegal gas line, which neighbors reported was leaking.

Dana Tanner, right, owner of Restauration, looks on as the Long Beach Gas Department employees examine her building’s gas connection after a reported leak, Sunday, Jan. 24, 2020. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

For the past few weeks, attorneys have been sparring over whether Tanner should be allowed to do extra community service instead of paying the $5,019.

Tanner said the Long Beach City Prosecutor’s office had agreed to waive the fee in lieu of extra volunteer work, but City Prosecutor Doug Haubert said he made no such promise and pointed out that it’s the judge, not his office, that set the terms for diversion.

In court papers, Haubert also pointed out that more than $9,300 had been donated to a GoFundMe for Tanner’s legal defense.

Nevertheless, Tanner said Monday that she couldn’t pay, telling Judge Frisco that she was still tens of thousands of dollars in debt from shutting down Restauration and moving out of Long Beach. Tanner said she’s working only part-time at her sister’s business and caring for a 9-year-old son who has autism.

To compensate, Tanner said she’d performed more than 40 extra hours of community service by volunteering to do social media marketing and other promotion for Long Beach organizations that boost local restaurants and gather food for those in need.

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 Jan. 25, 2021. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

Before agreeing to waive the $5,019, Judge Frisco said Tanner “technically” violated the law by refusing to close, “But I understand why you violated the law because you had to feed your family and pay your bills.”

Frisco explained his family is also in the restaurant business.

He said it wasn’t his place to pass judgment on how California handled COVID-19 lockdowns, “but I know that a lot of people lost everything because of it, and you’re obviously one of the persons that lost everything.”

Forcing Tanner and others to close during the holiday season when most restaurants make their money, was a “double whammy” that was “terribly punitive to you and your family,” Frisco said.

After he dismissed the case without requiring her to pay, Tanner burst into tears, thanked him and quickly left the courtroom.

Haubert, the city prosecutor, said if the Long Beach officials decide to do so, they could still try to recoup the $5,019 by taking Tanner to civil court, but the criminal case—which took more than a year and a half to resolve—is now over.

It cost $28,000 to investigate restaurant owner who defied COVID rules, city says

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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.