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Vino et Amicis owner Kurt Hixenbaugh, in a video post to YouTube on Feb. 10 proclaims his "defiance" of COVID-19 business restrictions. "Freedom is delicious," he said. 

A Santa Maria man was charged last month with four misdemeanor counts after he was accused of violating COVID-19 health orders at his Orcutt wine bar.

Kurt Hixenbaugh, 49, who owns Vino et Amicis in Old Town Orcutt, was charged with two counts of violating the state's stay-at-home emergency health order and two counts of violating the county health officer's order on Dec. 11, 2020, and Jan. 21, 2021, according to the complaint filed March 26. 

Violating the state of emergency carries up to a $1,000 fine and up to six months in jail. Failing to follow the public health order carries up to a $1,000 fine and up to 90 days in jail. 

The bar closed for the initial lockdown that started in March 2020 before reopening in May. The bar then closed again in July but remained open for to-go orders. The patio was reopened in August, followed by indoor dining in September. The bar was required to close operations after a December lockdown order, but Hixenbaugh remained open. 

“We had been following all the rules and jumping through all the hoops and doing everything we were supposed to do,” Hixenbaugh said. “We weren’t going to be cavalier and fill the place and just have a rip-roaring good time.”

On Dec. 3, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a stay-at-home order that limited the operations of certain businesses due to increasing coronavirus rates and less than 15% intensive care unit capacity across the region, which included the Central Coast.

During that same month, coronavirus cases in Santa Barbara County peaked at more than 7,200, which included active cases, according to local health data. 

Hixenbaugh, who is a former U.S. Army helicopter pilot in the Gulf War and 18-year veteran of the San Luis Obispo Police Department, said he didn't believe the numbers justified the restrictions. He added that no one in his family tested positive for the coronavirus and that no cases were traced back to his bar. 

Hixenbaugh announced on Dec. 6 via YouTube that he would stay open in an attempt to save his business but that he would limit seating to promote physical distancing. 

In March, the Vino et Amicis owner was informed by Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) officials that he would be fined $3,000 for violating the orders, which he paid.

Hixenbaugh described the talk with the ABC agent as "cordial," "professional" and that he understood the bar's position but "had a job to do." 

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Hixenbaugh later learned of the criminal charges, which were filed with the District Attorney's Office by ABC officials, according to Chief Deputy District Attorney John Savrnoch.

According to ABC spokesman John Carr, an agent visited the bar after receiving complaints and witnessed health order violations in December and January before submitting a report to the DA's Office on Feb. 11.

Savrnoch declined to comment on the case, citing pending litigation, but said he is part of a larger group run by the County’s Office of Emergency Management that advises businesses of consequences for not following coronavirus orders.

Savrnoch listed only a handful of criminal cases in the county, including Hixenbaugh's, among those that face sanctions for breaking coronavirus rules.

In addition, Savrnoch’s office has a “certain amount of discretion” when it comes to charging people, he said.

“Our main emphasis is on compliance, always has been and always will be as long as we’re under emergency orders,” Savrnoch said. “Ultimately, our mission was just to get people to comply and to save lives.”

Hixenbaugh believes the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control is using his bar as an example and doesn’t agree with the charges. He retained Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham, who represents Orcutt in the state Legislature and also is a licensed attorney. Both men have openly disagreed with the governor’s orders.

A spokesman for Cunningham’s office did not immediately return an inquiry for comment.

“I don’t think it’s right to be charged criminally, and that’s why we’re going to fight it,” Hixenbaugh said.

Hixenbaugh is scheduled to appear for an arraignment on complaint at 8:30 a.m. on April 29 before Judge Gustavo Lavayen in Superior Court of Santa Maria.

Coronavirus: Impact, response to COVID-19 on the Central Coast

We are working hard to get answers about the impact and reaction to the coronavirus in Santa Barbara County, this is a collection of those stories.

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