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Santa Cruz County Smoke Shop Open, Despite COVID-19 Warning

831 Smoke Shop stocks up on toilet paper, bottled water and cleaning supplies

INSTEAD OF LETTING CUSTOMERS IN, 831 SMOKE SHOP EMPLOYEES HAVE BEEN MEETING THEM AT THE DOOR. PHOTO: JACOB PIERCE

While Santa Cruz County health officials hash out the details of their COVID-19 response and stores burn through essential supplies, one local entrepreneur thinks he found a convenient workaround in order to reopen—despite the health orders that non-essential businesses must stay closed.

Dual shelter-in-place orders are in effect from Santa Cruz County health officials and from Gov. Gavin Newsom, but 831 Smoke Shop—which sells pipes, bongs, CBD and various tobacco products—reopened its two locations Wednesday. 831 Smoke Shop has one location on Santa Cruz’s Eastside and another in Watsonville.

For the past week and a half in Santa Cruz County, the only trips that have been permissible under the county’s health order are for “essential” activities, like trips to the grocery store, bank, gas station, hardware store and pharmacy. But now, 831 Smoke Shop is claiming to be more than just a smoke shop. That’s because, in addition to its normal items, the store has started selling rubbing alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, bleach, disinfectant wipes, toilet paper, and bottled water.

The store’s owner Jacob Alquadri says he accessed the supplies from a distributor he knows, and he felt obligated to share them with the community because many supermarkets and drugstores have been running low on essential supplies—if they even have any left on their shelves at all. “Why are we just going to sit on it and sleep on it?” says Alquadri, who additionally owns Watsonville’s Fat Boy Burger, which is currently open for drive-through only due to the county’s shelter-in-place order.

Alquadri says he has hand sanitizer and boxes of highly coveted N95 respirator masks on the way as well. He says he plans to send some boxes of the masks to local law enforcement agencies. Since reopening, the store’s employees have not been letting customers into the two shop locations. Instead, workers meet customers at the door, asking what they want and handling transactions in the doorway. Alquadri says they are dealing with customers one by one in order to make sure that everyone complies with the six-foot social distancing guidelines.

Santa Cruz County spokesperson Jason Hoppin says the county is aware that the smoke shop is operating, and he encourages all businesses to take the county’s health order carefully.

“We’re in a public health crisis. We are asking people to please take the shelter-in-place order seriously. Changing your business for the purpose of getting around the public health order is a risk to public health,” he says.

Alquadri says if any health officials see a problem with what he’s doing, they should start going after all the grocery stores and drug stores that also sell cigarettes.

According to the Santa Cruz County Health Services Agency, the county has confirmed 32 cases of the new coronavirus, or COVID-19. Statewide, there have been 3,006 COVID-19 cases, including 42 deaths, according to the California Department of Public Health. The county’s shelter-in-place orders are technically scheduled to expire April 7, but health officials can extend them to further stop the spread of disease.

When it comes to smoking, Tara Leonard, the county’s tobacco compliance officer, notes that early data appears to show that the COVID-19 virus is much harder on those with a history of smoking. Like many health workers, Leonard has been temporarily reassigned to focus on the county’s COVID-19 response. She feels 831 Smoke Shop’s recent pivot was at the very least in violation of the spirit of the recent health orders.

Hoppin could not discuss whether 831 Smoke Shop was in violation of the county’s order, and he did not know whether any fines had been issued in the county. He noted that law enforcement chiefs, like Sheriff Jim Hart, have recently announced that they’ll be stepping up enforcement on everything from beach parties to illegally operating businesses.

“It clearly seems outside the realm of ‘essential’ business,” Hoppin says, “when you’re talking about smoke shops and a dangerous virus that attacks at the lungs.”


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