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One Year In: Recent Shelter In Place Litigation Roundup

Faced with a once in a century pandemic, everyday life has changed in ways that none could have predicted a year ago. This extends to a quickly evolving jurisprudence regarding the interplay between constitutional rights and the government’s ability to restrict activity during a pandemic as the courts, including SCOTUS, have issued a plethora of expedited rulings on these issues. All Californians likely vividly recall when Governor Gavin Newsom issued the statewide shelter in place order one year ago this March. As we approach the one-year anniversary of the initial shelter in place order, below is a summary of three of the most recent developments in the continuing litigation in which worship services, restaurants, and gyms are challenging the State and local restrictions.

  1. Worship Services: Cross Culture Christian Center, et al. v. Newsom, et al. – March 9, 2021 Eastern District Order Denying Request for Preliminary Injunction
    On February 6, 2021, the State updated the Blueprint in response to the Supreme Court’s decision in South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom. The updated Blueprint now permits worship services to resume indoors at 25% capacity in Tiers 1 and 2, and up to 50% capacity in Tiers 3 and 4. Plaintiffs Cross Culture Christian Center, Cornerstone Church, and their respective pastors, moved for a preliminary injunction that would allow up to 50% capacity for Tiers 1, 2, and 3 and up to 75% capacity for Tier 4. The Plaintiffs also sought to enjoin the State from enforcing the singing and chanting restrictions during worship services.
    The Honorable Judge Mendez was not persuaded that Plaintiffs could meet the high standard for a preliminary injunction. The Court ruled that Plaintiffs had not established that, under the revised Blueprint, worship services were treated any more harshly than comparable secular activity, such as movie theaters, lecture halls, and concerts where people gather for extended periods of time. The Court went on to find that even applying the more rigorous strict scrutiny standard, the Blueprint’s restrictions conformed with what SCOTUS had ordered in South Bay United.

  3. Restaurants: County of Los Angeles Department of Public Health v. Sup. Ct. of Los Angeles (California Restaurant Association) – March 1, 2021 Court of Appeal Opinion Reversing Superior Court’s Preliminary Injunction
    On December 15, 2020, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Chalfant issued a preliminary injunction enjoining Los Angeles County’s outdoor dining ban because he determined that the County’s failure to conduct a specific risk-benefit analysis meant the ban could not survive the deferential rational basis standard of review. This ruling was an outlier that misapplied the rational basis review standard and was quickly shot down on appeal. Specifically, after having previously stayed the injunction pending appeal, on March 1, 2021 the Court of Appeal then issued its decision on the merits reversing the superior court’s preliminary injunction. The Court of Appeal explained that the deferential emergency response standard of review set forth in Jacobson v. Massachusetts was the appropriate standard. While the Supreme Court has rejected that standard when a fundamental right was at issue, such as a Free Exercise claim, the Supreme Court had pointedly not overturned Jacobson despite its many opportunities to do so.
    In applying that standard, the Court of Appeal found that Los Angeles County’s outdoor dining ban had a real and substantial relation to the legitimate state interest in curbing the spread of COVID-19 and survived the constitutional challenge. The Court of Appeal decidedly rejected the superior court’s imposition of a requirement to conduct any specific risk-benefit analysis to support its COVID-19 restrictions. Now with Los Angeles County moving to the red tier, indoor dining is slated to resume at 25% capacity.

  5. Gyms: Excel Fitness Fair Oaks v. Newsom – March 2, 2021 Eastern District Order Granting Motion to Dismiss
    In the Blueprint’s Tier 1, gyms and fitness facilities may only operate outdoors. In response, many gyms and fitness facilities have brought challenges to these restrictions, raising several constitutional challenges including due process violations, equal protection violations, and regulatory takings. In one of the most recent decisions in the gym cases in California, Judge Mendez granted the State and local defendants’ motions to dismiss with prejudice as to each of these claims.
    The Court held that there was no fundamental constitutional right at issue, despite Plaintiffs’ arguments that the right to operate a business of one’s choosing constitutes a fundamental right. The Court further found the takings claim could not be sustained where Plaintiffs were contesting the validity of the law, and also because even complete restrictions on property use that are temporary are not regulatory takings. The other constitutional claims were subject only to the deferential rational basis standard of review as no fundamental right was at issue. The Court explained that the restrictions on indoor gym operations were rationally related to slowing the spread of the virus, and thus Plaintiffs’ challenges did not rise to the level of a constitutional violation. This case is on appeal to the Ninth Circuit.

Where Do We Go From Here?
California’s federal courts and appellate courts have been remarkably consistent in the many different challenges to State and local COVID-19 public health orders. These courts have refrained from second-guessing the public health officials who have crafted the restrictions, and have wielded the power of injunctive relief only where the law and evidence have compelled them to do so. In the most recent round of decisions, these courts have also been mindful of the overall context of the pandemic—there have now been more vaccinations than confirmed cases in the country and the vaccines offer the opportunity to finally put the pandemic in the past. But in light of that, and while State and local restrictions are now easing, the California federal and state courts are reluctant to speed up the reopening of California beyond what public health officials recommend.
About Our Shelter In Place Litigation Expertise
Meyers Nave’s Shelter In Place Litigation Team is currently defending counties, cities and health officials throughout California in federal and state court litigation challenging Public Health Orders, Shelter In Place Orders, and Reopening Plans related to the coronavirus pandemic. The team is tackling both the complex constitutional law issues in litigation as well as the practical enforcement issues that arise from restrictions placed on the operation of worship services, gyms, nail salons, wine bars, brew pubs, restaurants, and other businesses. We have obtained victories at the district and appellate court levels. Please click here for recorded Meyers Nave webinars and Client Alerts about legal developments related to COVID-19.