By ELLAH FOSTER
Published May 22, 2020
A turn down Dolores Street in the mostly shuttered, empty town of Carmel-by-the-Sea reveals what looks like a political rally. American flags, Trump hats and “Jeff Gorman for Congress” posters surround the Tuck Box, an eatery in downtown Carmel, as customers pack the tables and overflow onto the sidewalk. Some patrons hold up signs, one reading “Unlock Our Tennis Courts” another “Free Tuck Box.”
Despite the COVID-19 shelter-in-place order, restaurant owner Jeffrey LeTowt made the irresponsible decision to operate his business as usual for the majority of May. LeTowt said that he reopened due to his constitutional rights being violated, telling KSBW that he was unable to pay the restaurant’s rent or personal bills. Yet the restaurant’s official website reads that LeTowt’s father owns the building, calling into question the desperation of his situation, in comparison to other local restaurateurs and retailers.
Jeffrey LeTowt proclaims that his actions are in an effort to keep himself afloat financially, but that is obviously not the only motive.
Every other business in downtown Carmel has been forced to rise to the occasion through innovative ways of serving customers outside of their brick-and-mortar establishments. LeTowt’s decision was disrespectful to other business owners as they scramble to make ends meet.
Hundreds, if not thousands of people visited the Tuck Box during its reopening, many from neighboring counties or from all over California. By comparison, Monterey County has sustained relatively low rates of infection, which is arguably in large part due to the SIP order.
LeTowt’s rejection of safety guidelines—masks, distancing, no table service—puts in question his adherence to basic health precautions against this highly contagious virus. Was staff disinfecting menus, tables and booths? Were walls and light switches being regularly cleaned? Communal condiments remained on every table. And what about the bathrooms?
There have been over 5 million cases of COVID-19 worldwide, with over 330,000 deaths, according to John Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. In late April, the deaths in the U.S. exceeded that of the Vietnam War and are currently creeping toward 100,000. Families have been kept from saying goodbye to their dying loved ones, and communities all over the world have lost their beloved nurses and doctors, grocery store workers and grandparents.
Large gatherings without precautions as have occurred at the Tuck Box have the potential to cause an outbreak, which would only delay the recovery process. Our economy is dependent on millions of annual visitors that stay in our hotels, dine at our restaurants and shop at our boutiques. Though this lockdown has undeniably damaged our economy, an outbreak would only further cement this economic strife. The eldery demographic of Carmel is particularly vulnerable to an outbreak with devastating consequences.
The Tuck Box controversy is similar to an incident reported by the L.A Times about an outbreak in Butte County, California. A resident tested positive for COVID-19 after attending an in-person church service with more than 180 community members. Now, public health officials are scrambling to both notify and test all attendees. There are countless cases like this around the country, and the Tuck Box could cause Carmel to become another cautionary tale.
It seems as though LeTowt has utilized his restaurant to further a conservative agenda, downplaying the severity of the virus and using patriotism as a front. The rise in denial of modern science and medicine encourages individuals to ignore the pandemic at hand, cherry-picking statistics and research to back up their claims.
LeTowt’s reopening of the Tuck Box did not bring a sense of normalcy back into this community. It was a short-lived stunt for the wrong type of attention. As a heavily tourist-driven institution, the future of the Tuck Box remains unknown, as does the future of much of downtown Carmel. In these trying times ahead, locals will make personal decisions as to whether they want to support this business. Just remember, LeTowt chose to politicize and capitalize from a historically devastating world event for his own financial gain.
Note: As of May 22, the restaurant officially submitted to “takeout” only. However, when I went to look for myself, customers were still eating on the patio, one with a wine glass. The server was wearing a mask, as well as some patrons, though many were pulled down around their necks. Communal condiments and decorations remained on the tables.