Businesses in California deemed ‘non-essential’ during the COVID-19 crisis were ordered to shut down, and stay-at-home orders have been in place for weeks. What has emerged is a growing number of people flouting that order, and the result? Business owners caught in violation can pay a steep price. Non-essential businesses may face a fine up to $1,000, and business owners could face up to six months in jail. One L.A. smoke shop owner is in a legal entanglement after being accused of breaking the stay-at-home order.
Los Angeles business owner Natali Mishali is that smoke shop owner. On April 3, after being closed for three weeks, she opened her shop back up after consulting with her lawyer. Mishali and four other individuals were criminally charged with violating the government’s shut-down order. Incidentally, it just happened to include two California smoke shops, a shoe store and a discount electronics retailer. Her arraignment is scheduled for July 8, and the case is pending.
Mishali argues that she should have been allowed to stay open because, despite the business name, not only does she sell tobacco products, the store sells groceries and sundries like single rolls of toilet paper — a commodity popular with downtown L.A.’s homeless population. And it’s not like Mishali’s DTLA Smoke Shop just started selling grocery and personal care items recently, either. Since opening around two years ago, the smoke shop sold these items, along with cleaning products, under a food market retail permit issued by Los Angeles County in 2018.
While excited about opening up DTLA Smoke Shop, she’s spent over $20,000 in legal fees and lost revenue from two other smoke shops she had to close over the same three-week period. While closed, Mishali donated merchandise but also had to dispose of some. In an interview with the L.A. Times, Mishali believed the city attorney’s office went overboard when enforcing the mayor’s emergency declaration. In the article, she is quoted as saying, “If the name of my business was Downtown LA Convenience Store and Smoke Shop,” Mishali says, she thinks she would not have been criminally charged. “But … we only have smoke shop in our name.”
While most of her shop inventory is tobacco products, the back section is devoted to food, beverages and other non-tobacco products. In the article, Mishali said LAPD officers deemed her compliant with the mayor’s orders several times until April 3, when her business was forced to shut down, and she was criminally charged. The very next day, her legal representative contacted the city’s supervising attorney of tobacco enforcement operations. They wanted some answers. The response came two days later, and cited a paragraph from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health’s website that said, “tobacco shops and vape shops do not qualify as ‘essential’ businesses and should not be open to the public.”
Using the free time during shut-down to her advantage, Mishali requested copies of her permits, from her business license to her food market retail permit, all in preparation for a visit by city officials.
In the L.A. Times interview, Mishali said, “The city insisted on shutting us down, and we spent the last three weeks just working and doing everything we could to get back open,” Mishali said. “We got our confirmations from the county, and we did everything we possibly could to have an answer for anything the city could throw at us.”
Mishali might get a reprieve. Rob Wilcox, a spokesperson for the city attorney’s office, said in an email that while tobacco stores are “not an essential business,” those that sell additional items will be evaluated “on a case-by-case basis, taking into account all of the applicable permit and licenses from the city, county, and state.”