A Roseville restaurant that provocatively challenged one of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s coronavirus emergency orders is fighting a potentially crippling suspension 18 months after he initially drew attention from the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.
Matthew Oliver, the restaurant owner, recently learned the agency still wants to shut the House of Oliver for 30 days as a penalty for violating the state’s pandemic health orders in late 2020 and early 2021.
The notice came after The Sacramento Bee featured him in a March 2022 news story about how Placer County managed Newsom’s public health orders, often by ignoring state directives.
Oliver stands to temporarily lose his liquor license for his flagship restaurant, a wine lounge, and part of his livelihood, his attorney Meister Chair said.
“If I would’ve been silent, I would’ve been fine,” Oliver said.
He drew statewide attention during the lockdowns for his vocal criticism of the Newsom administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Oliver kept his Roseville restaurant open for indoor service in the fall of 2020 despite a state-mandated coronavirus curfew. Oliver promoted his plan on social media, calling it “Newsom hour.”
His cited actions drew the attention of Alcoholic Beverage Control, which him and later filed a civil suit against him in the agency’s administrative court, according to Meister, Oliver’s attorney.
Agents visited the restaurant on Nov. 20, 2020, and found him operating the business indoors in violation of the public health order, according to ABC records.
Oliver at that time tempered his criticism of Newsom, but continued to operate his business. Agents found the restaurant operating indoors on Dec. 5, Dec. 17 and Dec. 31 of 2020, as well as on Jan. 20, 2021.
That was a common practice in Roseville, where city and county officials generally declined to enforce Newsom’s public health order and allowed business owners to operate as they saw fit.
The California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control at one point asked the Placer County District Attorney’s Office to prosecute Oliver in connection with how he operated his businesses during the pandemic.
District Attorney Morgan Gire rejected the request and called it impractical in a community that questioned Newsom’s orders.
In a letter dated February 5, 2021, he informed the state agency that his office would not file criminal charges against Oliver out of concern that the evidence did not meet the threshold to bring a conviction.
“As your department has recognized, the guidelines and mandates thrust upon our community have been a source of ambiguity, confusion, and frustration. The ever-changing landscape amidst this pandemic has created legal vagaries and uncertainties that would render a criminal prosecution infeasible and impractical,” Gire said in the letter.
“In addition, it is both ethically required as well as necessarily practical to consider strongly held opinions within our community as it relates to the core issue implied by this charging decision: criminalizing the decision of a local business owner to operate his or her business in contravention of a state directive in order to prevent permanent closure,” Gire added.
ABC presses case in administrative court
Oliver employs over 100 people across three restaurants, and he said continued closure would have incurred the permanent loss of jobs and even the permanent closure of his restaurants.
“People think I did this to make a profit,” Oliver said. “But that couldn’t be further from the truth. I had to stay open for my employees.”
After Gire declined to prosecute Oliver, the state agency on March 18, 2021, filed a 13-count complaint against the business in its administrative court.
Most of the counts center on Oliver operating the business in violation of the coronavirus emergency order.
The agency also accuses Oliver of keeping “disorderly house” in which people “abide or resort to for the purposes which are injurious to the public health . . .” and “willfully neglected to obey” executive orders and public health orders.
Oliver: Other restaurants challenged Newsom order
In a response to the accusation, Meister said the accusations should be dismissed upon the basis of “selective prosecution,” pointing to other restaurants that were also operating indoor service during the stay-at-home orders and did not receive the same attention or threats against their licenses from ABC.
Meister argues that the accusation stems from a “’discriminatory animus’ against Oliver in retaliation for Oliver having exercised his First Amendment rights and having spoken with the local media upon their request as well as Oliver having made posts to his social media account concerning the State of California as well as the ABC.”
The case is moving forward slowly. Oliver does not yet have a date for an administrative hearing.
“ABC filed an accusation against the House of Oliver for violating health orders. The case is still pending,” ABC spokesman John Carr said.
While Meister said he can’t discuss the details of the case, he said ABC is stipulating that Oliver close the restaurant for at least a month, a move that Oliver said would be catastrophic for his business.
He embraces the reputation he built when he poked the Newsom administration, and today sells merchandise referring to his business as a “rebel restaurant.”
“This is not communist China, we are allowed to question this stuff,” Oliver said.
This story was originally published May 10, 2022 5:25 AM.