Mendocino County is known for its coastlines, cannabis, redwoods, rivers, and now a funky little diner called Fiddleheads. The corner cafe in the seaside town of Mendocino has become famous, some would say infamous, for the owner’s defiance of pandemic protocols. Owner Chris Castleman’s particular brand of rabble-rousing and civil disobedience has been featured in the San Francisco Chronicle, The Hill, and Fox News and has struck a nerve in a nation feeling the tensions of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the Spring of 2020, Castleman faced fines and citations from Mendocino County regarding masking protocols. In late March 2021, Castleman began his campaign of challenging pandemic protocols by offering a 50% discount to any patron that threw away their facial covering when they entered his restaurant.
The recent media frenzy arose when he doubled down on his defiance by asking patrons who choose to wear a mask to pay a fee of $5.00 to do so. Restaurant policy also dictates that anyone who is bragging about being vaccinated is charged $5.00 as well.
The Guardian published an article entitled “‘Waiting to Happen’: the California region where masks are taboo- and cases are rising” examining the rise in COVID-19 cases in Northern California and the cultural trends compelling the rise. Writer Erin McCormick uses Castleman’s Fiddleheads as emblematic of a region that she describes as “one of the most forceful in its pushback against measures such as masks, business restrictions, and vaccine mandates.”
Castleman characterized the policies he has enacted in his restaurant as a form of civil disobedience. At the heart of his protest is his concern for the collateral damage from COVID-19 lockdowns including spikes in child abuse, domestic abuse, suicides, and overdoses.
Regarding the $5.00 charge for wearing a mask or bragging about being vaccinated, Castleman said all revenue generated is being donated to various charities that support the collateral damage of lockdown that he is concerned about such as domestic violence and child abuse charities.
As one could imagine, Castleman’s tactics have inflamed those concerned with the spread of COVID-19 and gained the respect of the COVID-19 skeptics.
Mendocino County Public Health Officer Doctor Andy Coren emphasized that despite Castleman’s restaurant rules, masking is the most accessible, effective, and non-pharmacological intervention available.
He emphasized that Mendocino County businesses and residents are “in favor of masking.” Dr. Coren expressed concern that Castleman’s coverage in the national and international news could disrupt Mendocino County’s fight against COVID-19.
“The more we talk about Castleman, the more attention he gets and he becomes a leader of his ilk,” Dr. Coren explained. “That is one of the hazards of your profession,” he said, referring to the task of reporting the news.
Castleman, however, said since the signs have gone up regarding the mask tax and vaccine-talk fee, “we’ve had the least amount of tension in the room.”
He added, “No one is getting upset. There are like-minded people.”
Castleman explained, “The signs are a pretty big middle finger to my community and half of America and it keeps them out.”
Regarding his cafe’s customer retention in the midst of his defiance, Castleman recognized that many will hold a grudge against him forever. “I’ve talked to people who don’t want to be seen in my cafe so they won’t be harassed about it,” he told us.
Castleman’s restaurant initially came to the public’s attention when he organized a GoFundMe in June 2020 to help him “hire a lawyer to define our right to stay open and serve our customers.” The GoFundMe characterized Mendocino County’s attempts to enforce pandemic protocols as “3 months of attacks from a small group of activist/bullies and overreaching politicians.”
As the summer dragged on, Castleman chose to close up shop and decided when he came back, he would come back stronger “with a more assertive message.” He traveled around the United States. He said he felt unsafe in Mendocino where people were screaming at his customers and employees, his phone was ringing off the hook, someone rubbed dog feces on his windows, and he was even assaulted by someone in his restaurant. The closure of Fiddleheads and his subsequent travels, Castleman pointed out, were during the Fall/Winter 2020 when cases were surging.
When he reopened in February 2021, Castleman said “we were met with strong community resistance.”
Castleman said COVID lockdowns have resulted in a net loss of approximately $400,000 and compromised his small business that had become his life and energy. His recent pandemic defiance has appealed to a COVID-skeptic crowd that have become regulars of the cafe, but Castleman said that could never make up for the profits lost due to COVID-19.
The coverage has prompted some out-of-towners to drive upwards of five hours to visit Castleman’s Fiddleheads, he explained. Castleman said these sorts of customers do not make up for the losses his restaurant has endured.
When asked what it has been like to receive national media attention, Castleman said, “It’s a blessing.” The coverage has resulted in Castleman being “flooded with hate and my phone is ringing off the hook” and, conversely, “I’m getting a lot of support, too.” Ultimately, Castleman said he would rather the attention be off of him so society could begin to examine “the collateral damage of lockdowns.”
Castleman, true to his pugnacious self, said he decided to embark on his pandemic defiance campaign after reading a statement from Mendocino County’s 5th District Supervisor Ted Williams when he remarked, “Imagine the good he could do with that energy.” When Castleman read Williams’ words, he simply said, “I’ll take him up on that.”
A business nearby Fiddleheads that preferred to remain anonymous said they try to avoid Castleman because of his “bad reputation.” They said their business cooperates with masking and the pandemic protocols and called Castleman’s approach, “kind of crazy.”
Board Director of the Mendocino Coast Chamber of Commerce Ray Alarcon said his body encourages all member businesses to comply with county pandemic protocols. He said that the chamber has partnered with community organizations to distribute masks and sanitizer to interested patrons.
As to the status of Mendocino County’s exploration of Fiddleheads, Mendocino County’s Code Enforcement Supervisor John Burkes told us his department continues to investigate with no specific updates at this time.
UPDATE 7:23 a.m.: Chris Castleman contacted us and wanted to clarify comments regarding the “middle finger” at his community. He wants to emphasize he understand that his actions at Fiddleheads are perceived negatively by many and come with a price, “but that is a price I am willing to pay to stand for something I believe in and get a (national) conversation around the negative side effects of these government restrictions.”
He further clarified that he does not take pleasure in giving the metaphorical “middle finger” to his community, but said “I know that sometimes you have to think outside the box and be a little confrontational to get a conversation started.”