You’d never know LA County has a strict order for indoor masks when you sit down at Novo Café, an upscale Italian restaurant in Westlake Village. Most workers and customers, even the owner, do not wear masks as required by a public health order.
“I believe in freedom of choice. So the mask is, in my opinion, just a sign of submission, ”Novo owner Massimo Forti told NBC4 I-Team.
The I-Team has documented employees and customers not wearing masks indoors at restaurants in LA County – from the trendy Escuela Taqueria near The Grove to a series of restaurants in the neighborhood of Pico-Robertson, including the Beverly Hills Bagel Company and the Pico Cafe.
And the I-Team has found that the Department of Health does indeed allow companies to ignore an order it calls “saving lives.”
On July 15, the LA County Public Health Department [DPH] reinstated a pandemic order that “everyone, regardless of their immunization status, should wear a mask in all indoor public places” except in a few circumstances, such as when a customer or worker is eating or drinking.
“Masking is a very important tool” in stopping the spread of the infectious delta variant of Covid-19, said Dr Barbara Ferrer, LA County Director of Public Health.
Ferrer has reinstated the indoor masking order after numerous outbreaks of COVID-19 at well-known LA restaurants, including Bottega Louie in West Hollywood, Firefly in Studio City and several In-N-Out Burger locations.
But some restaurants, like the Novo Cafe in Westlake Village, remain defiant and don’t require employees or customers to wear masks indoors.
“There is no evidence that it protects anyone,” Novo Cafe owner Massimo Forti told NBC4.
Public health doctors across the country say there are, in fact, numerous studies now showing that masking prevents the spread of COVID-19.
“There is scientific data that shows masking to be effective,” says Dr. Robert Kim-Farley, an epidemiologist at the Fielding School of Public Health at UCLA.
The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) this year listed 11 studies that concluded that masking controlled the spread of COVID-19.
Dr Kim-Farley says masking inside businesses, like restaurants, can protect workers and customers.
“An unmasked worker who is infected may not know it, he is asymptomatic and can pass the disease on to his co-workers… who can then infect clients,” Kim-Farley told the I-Team.
The LA County Public Health Department is issuing citations and fines for “lack of compliance” with health orders, including the masking rule. But the I-Team has found that the enforcement of the order appears patchy.
For example, Westlake Village’s Novo Cafe has been cited 60 times so far in 2021 for defying health ordinances, according to records reviewed by the I-Team.
But the owner tells NBC4 he’s not paying the fines, which he says now total between $ 85,000 and $ 90,000.
“I don’t even count [the amount of fines] more, ”said Massimo Forti. He says he’s trying to appeal the fines with the help of a lawyer.
The Department of Health also told NBC4 in an email that it revoked Novo Cafe’s public health license on February 2, 2021. Yet the restaurant continues to remain open despite the lack of a license and the ministry Health does not stop them.
The I-Team asked the Public Health Department to provide someone to answer questions about [the lack of] execution of the mask order, but the agency did not respond to the request.
In an email, DPH said “We are using education as the main step in complying” with the guidelines it calls “saving lives.”
And in a public statement released today, the DPH said its inspectors visited 1,874 businesses between Aug. 14 and Aug. 20 and found that the majority “were in compliance” with health ordinances.
The owners of Beverly Hills Bagel Company, Pico Cafe, and Escuela Taqueria have spoken to NBC4 and all said they will tell their employees to start masking properly inside.
“I’m glad you brought this to my attention,” Steven Arroyo, owner of Escuela Taqueria, told NBC4.
“I had no idea this was a problem in my restaurant,” said Tal Glickman, owner of Pico Cafe. He told the I-Team he would warn his employees that they must wear masks indoors and that he would “fire” anyone who does not follow suit.
But the owner of the Novo Cafe says he won’t enforce the order of masks at his Westlake Village restaurant on principle.
“The principle and the fact that everything they do [DPH] is unconstitutional, ”said Massimo Forti.