The Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office has filed four misdemeanor criminal charges against an Old Town Orcutt wine bar owner who allegedly defied public health orders during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Kurt Hixenbaugh, 49, has been charged with two counts of violating a stay-at-home order and two counts of failure to file a public health order, according to the criminal complaint filed last Friday in Santa Maria Superior Court.
Some counts are related to public health orders issued Dec. 11, 2020, while the others are related to orders issued in January.
In March, the county reported that few enforcement actions have resulted from thousands of complaints alleging violations of public health orders, and response teams typically worked to educate businesses and bring them into voluntary compliance.
The criminal complaint alleges the wine bar owner violated public health orders on multiple days.
“We have not received any complaints involving a similar behavior of somebody that refused to comply when the ABC or other agency instructed them to close,” Chief Deputy District Attorney John Savrnoch said.
This is the first criminal complaint related to public health order violations that the county has filed against a business, but some civil cases were filed against gyms that refused to close earlier in the pandemic, according to Savrnoch.
“Ultimately, our goal in this has always been just to get businesses to comply,” Savrnoch said.
Hixenbaugh is co-owner of Vino et Amicis and hadn’t been shy about opposing the orders.
In early December, he posted a video to YouTube titled “We are staying open,” announcing plans to ignore stay-at-home orders requiring closure, but pledging to enforce safety measures such as masks and social distancing. The stay-at-home order, in effect for most of December and January, required bars to close indoor and outdoor operations.
“We’re gonna defy that order. We don’t agree with it. We think it’s time that people start standing up and taking a stand on this. We’re going to do that, and I hope others will follow,” he said in the video that lasts more than six minutes.
COVID-19 “is real” and dangerous for certain people and very contagious, he said.
“When I say we’re gonna defy the order that doesn’t mean we’re just going to pack the place and have a good ol’ time and not be careful,” he said, adding that he intended to limit capacity.
“We’ve really been hurt, our businesses and our employees have really been hurt since COVID-19 started. We’ve done everything we can, we’ve followed all the rules, we’ve followed all the directives. Not all businesses have survived. Many have failed. There’s some of us that are still hangin’ on. And with this latest directive from the governor, it just pulls the rug out from under us again,” he said in a video posted on social media.
In February, he posted another video saying a beer called F- COVID had been renamed Defiance, also the name of the video.
“The boot that’s on our throat from Sacramento is killing our businesses, and we need to stand up to that. We need to unite and stand up against that. Just a little bit of encouragement for my fellow business owners,” he said.
Hixenbaugh has been sent a letter to appear on April 29 for an arraignment hearing in a Santa Maria courtroom before Judge Gustavo Lavayen.
Reached on Thursday, the former San Luis Obispo Police Department sergeant and self-described “law and order guy” said his actions were to save his small business.
“We’re still here. We have gotten some fines from ABC, and we’re going to pay those fines and going to keep on doing our thing,” he said, adding that he expected consequences for his actions.
The criminal case is separate from any ABC actions related to the wine bar’s alcohol license.
If convicted, each misdemeanor charge would carry a maximum penalty of six months in jail and/or a $1,000 fine.