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By Shawn Raymundo
When Nomads Canteen opened its doors around noon on Friday, May 1, to once again allow for dine-in services, it wasn’t long before the restaurant filled up with customers eager to grab a beer and eat a meal somewhere other than their home or on a city bench.
Social distancing measures were initially put in place, restaurant owner Jeff Gourley tells San Clemente Times. Tables inside, he said, were spread out, while patrons waiting on the patio area had been keeping their distance from one another.
That was the case until many of the protesters who had flocked to Downtown San Clemente for a rally against the state’s stay-at-home orders decided to make their way over to Avenida Cabrillo where Nomads is the only known restaurant in town that’s now open for dining.
“We set out to keep social distancing per the county requirements,” Gourley said, adding: “The deck stayed pretty socially distant until the rally just ended a few minutes ago, and the rally came (to the restaurant), so they kind of filled in the spaces right now. We’re doing what we can do and letting people make their own decisions. That’s kind of where we’re at.”
One street over, on Avenida Del Mar, dozens of people had gathered as part of the ongoing demonstrations against the social distance policies while advocating for the reopening of businesses and California’s economy.
Friday’s rally, which had routinely been held on Sundays in recent weeks, coincided with the annual May Day Marches that are meant to support workers’ rights.
Throughout much of the public health crisis that has stalled economic activity, Nomads had remained open for takeout services on weekends. But Gourley decided May 1 would be the date to officially reopen the bar and in-person dining, believing a prolonged closure would put him out of business.
“I chose May 1 over a month ago. I closed a day before the mandate. I wanted to know what was going on with the virus. I was all about stopping it, (to) ‘flatten the curve,’” he said.
“I said, I’ll give (the state and county) six weeks, and I’ll open May 1,” he continued. “That’s the date I picked because if we go beyond that, the economic injury is so extreme to the entire city that I don’t think we’ll recover.”
Further addressing the influx of customers who packed the restaurant on Friday afternoon, Gourley said it wouldn’t be happening if other restaurants reopened. He stressed that it’s up to his customers to decide whether they’re comfortable dining in or not.
“I’m the only place open; it concentrates the people,” he said, adding: “I set up everything for social distancing, but I’m not going to go move people. I’m not going to determine who’s a family member. I can’t.”
As for his staff, Gourley said he also allowed the servers to make their own call on whether to return to work. About half of them, he said, weren’t willing to come back just yet.
According to Gourley, he’s been able to acquire serology test kits from a connection of his, and has been regularly testing his staff for COVID-19 antibodies before they’ve been allowed to start their shifts.
“One hundred percent of my staff was negative, so every single person here (today) we tested,” he said.
Asked whether he was concerned with the potential for customers to spread the virus to his employees, he said didn’t have any, “because my people are young (and) healthy.” He went on to cite the county health office’s data that shows roughly 70% of those who have died from the virus in Orange County were 65 and older.
Noting that the daily number of new cases in San Clemente has leveled in recent weeks, he questioned where the virus would originate.
“Where’s it going to come from? We’ve all been quarantining at home,” he said before repeating the question for emphasis. “Where’s it going to come from?”
Shawn Raymundo is the city editor for the San Clemente Times. He graduated from Arizona State University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Studies. Before joining Picket Fence Media, he worked as the government accountability reporter for the Pacific Daily News in the U.S. territory of Guam. Follow him on Twitter @ShawnzyTsunami and follow San Clemente Times @SCTimesNews.