“The harvest is better without commie distancing” reads a full-page newspaper ad for an Oak Glen apple farm which has received $1.2 million in federal loans meant to help businesses weather the coronavirus pandemic.
Owners held gatherings during state stay-at-home orders, have not required guests to wear masks and, as its newspaper ad states, do not care for social distancing that public health experts say slows the spread of the virus.
Despite the apple farm’s approach to pandemic protocols, the business received at least $1,198,356 in coronavirus-related loans from the U.S. government.
Co-owner James Riley said he sees no contradiction in defying coronavirus health rules and accepting federal COVID-19 relief money.
“It’s not really COVID relief money, it’s COVID damages money,” he said over the phone. “The incredible ineptitude of the public health elites have damaged the economy maybe beyond recovering.”
A lot of business owners, Riley said, “look at it as that’s what they owe us for their colossal incompetence.”
“Lots of people up here for a Thursday,” the post reads. The post says the photos are from the prior night’s Christmas in the Colonies event. Though there were requests for the “Mt. Vernon Pie,” the post reads, “it doesn’t transport well, so it looks like it will be an on site dish only.”
On May 28, 2020, as San Bernardino County businesses were starting to reopen after the winter surge in COVID-19 cases, co-owner James Riley said in a blog on the farm’s website that the business was “moving forward” and going back to the “old normal.”
“If you want to wear a mask, wear one,” Riley writes in the blog. “Likewise, if you do NOT want to wear a mask or keep your distance, we consider that your choice as well. We will not insult you by putting markers on the floor or changing our seating arrangements.”
The county received hundreds of complaints about the business, 110 via phone and 144 via its website from May 2020 through February 2021, said county spokesman David Wert. But many of those complaints were duplicates.
No virus outbreaks were connected to the apple farm, according to Wert, and the county has not imposed any fines on businesses nor individuals violating state health orders during the pandemic. Instead, the county mailed warning letters and visited the subjects of complaints.
“This business was very vocal in its opposition to the Governor’s health orders, which no doubt inspired many of the complaints the county received about this property,” Wert wrote in an email.
“Many, if not most, of the complaints were not from people who claimed to have witnessed violations of state health orders but rather people complaining that the business was stating publicly via advertising and social media that it intended to not comply,” Wert added.
Riley said his recent advertisement in the Yucaipa/Calimesa News Mirror just voices what his customers feel.
“A lot of our customers are absolutely sick of COVID hysterics,” he said.
Riley’s Farm received nearly $1.2 million in coronavirus-related loans since the pandemic began in spring 2020 when businesses began to shutter to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
On April 18, 2020, the farm received a $462,500 COVID-19 Economic Injury Disaster Loan and on June 17 of that year the farm received another $43,000 from the same program, according to data from the Small Business Administration, which runs the program. The low-interest loans are designed to provide economic relief to small businesses and nonprofits that experienced a temporary loss of revenue.
Website covidbailouttracker.com shows the farm also received a $10,000 loan on April 10, 2020, though that number could not immediately be verified in the government data.
According to ProPublica’s Paycheck Protection Program loan tracker, the farm received a $317,300 loan from that program on June 25, 2020, and another one for $375,556 on March 12, 2021.
The PPP loans are forgivable, meaning they may not be required to be repaid, and are designed to help keep workers employed.
Riley said the loss of public school field trips over the past 18-plus months was hard on the farm’s bottom line.
“Our business was at least halved in terms of revenue,” he said. “Millions of dollars went off the books.”
As of September 2021, though, he said sales are 395% ahead of the previous year and 7% ahead of 2019.
As for the advertisement, Yucaipa/Calimesa News Mirror owner and publisher Jerry Bean said in a note in the following edition that the paper received 14 emails and several phone calls in response to the message.
Bean said he approved the ad, but “that does not mean I approved of the content of the ad, but it was not illegal or libelous and was something the owner of the farm apparently wanted to say that is also the belief of some readers today.”
Meanwhile, Riley’s lawsuit against Claremont educators over field trips canceled prior to the pandemic is moving forward in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. On Aug. 31, three judges heard oral arguments.
In 2018, Claremont Unified School District canceled trips to the farm following social media posts by Riley that some called “offensive” and “misogynistic.” Riley said the cancellations violated his First Amendment right to free speech, but in 2020 a U.S. District Court judge disagreed.
A similar second lawsuit was filed in 2020, against officials at Azusa, Bonita, Burbank, Corona-Norco, Culver City, Monrovia, Rialto, San Bernardino City and Walnut Valley unified districts, but a judge put that one on hold pending the outcome in appeals court.
Riley said he’s “guardedly optimistic” about the appeals case because the judges appeared to acknowledge that his rights were abridged, and that there was little other cause for the district’s action besides retaliation.
Riley said it could take three months to a year for their verdict.
— to www.mercurynews.com