CA lawmakers dine out in Sacramento despite COVID-19 surge

For their swearing-in session on Monday, Assembly leaders moved their house from the state Capitol to the Golden 1 Center to make sure lawmakers were appropriately spaced. COVID-19 safety concerns meant that families and guests were excluded from the event.

Just hours later, however, five California state Assembly members dined together outside at a Sacramento restaurant.

Assembly members Adrin Nazarian, D-West Toluca Lake, Chad Mayes, I-Rancho Mirage, Tasha Boerner Horvath, D-Encinitas, Marc Levine, D-Marin County, and Chris Ward, D-San Diego, along with Mayes’ fiancée, attended a dinner Monday evening at Maydoon, a newer restaurant in Sacramento’s Midtown neighborhood.

When asked by a Sacramento Bee reporter about their decision to enjoy a multi-household outing, Nazarian responded by asking “Can we not have dinner?”

Levine said they were “supporting a local business,” and pulled his mask from his pocket when asked whether the members had face coverings.

Boerner Horvath quickly pulled her scarf up from around her neck to cover her nose and left the table. During a phone call, her chief of staff Rob Charles said the members were following Sacramento County’s COVID-19 requirements.

“They were dining outside, they were following the protocols, everyone tested negative for COVID-19,” he said, adding that Boerner Horvath flew into Sacramento on Sunday and was staying at a hotel with limited dining options.

California’s rules for restaurants don’t specify the number of households allowed at an outdoor table. Yet state health officials this fall have repeatedly recommended that people from no more than three households meet for a meal, even on a holiday.

The state has also issued guidance urging Californians against non-essential travel outside of their own region, but lawmakers who gathered from across the state in Sacramento on Monday are considered essential workers.

Sacramento isn’t yet subject to the latest stay-at-home order that would ban even outside dining, but nearly 85% of Californians are as ICUs threaten to run out of capacity.

Mayes said he and his fiancée originally went to Maydoon “looking for a place to kill time” before their evening return flight, and that the others later joined the two for dinner. He said he “thought we were following all the rules because we were sitting outside.”

“There’s not much more to it than that,” Mayes said, adding that the COVID-19 regulations have also been hard to follow.

“It has been very unclear,” he said. “Legislators, just like everybody else – I don’t want to start beating other people up – but they think they’re very unclear.”

But the outing also coincides with increased calls from state officials to mitigate the spread of the deadly virus by reducing the mixing of households.

Gov. Gavin Newsom laid out the state’s dire circumstances during a Monday press conference.

The governor, who was recently skewered for attending a private birthday party in early November at an expensive Napa County restaurant, said the state’s seven-day positivity rate has climbed above 10% – more than double the level recommended by the CDC for officials to reopen an economy safely.

During the Organizational Session held Monday at noon at the Golden 1 Center to swear in members, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Lakewood, noted the challenges ahead for the Legislature as it prepares for a second year of COVID-19. He also acknowledged the disappointment in not allowing family and friends to join in celebrating the start of the Legislature’s 2021-2022 calendar.

“We must continue to exercise maximum caution,” Rendon said, “in order to bring this state through this pandemic.”

Members, some of whom arrived by plane, were required to be tested for COVID-19 before participating in the ceremony. To safeguard the lawmakers and their staff against any potential spread of the virus, the arena was also set up so members could distance at separate tables, 6 feet apart.

“I would hope that every Assembly member makes safe choices for themselves, their families, and their constituents,” Rendon said in response to an inquiry about the dinner. “I would also hope they are mindful of the sacrifices Californians are making during this COVID pandemic.”

Hannah Wiley joined The Sacramento Bee as a state politics reporter in 2019 to cover the California Capitol. She’s a Chicago-area native and a graduate of Saint Louis and Northwestern Universities.

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