Steve Heebner is trying his best to comply with the rules put in place to fight the spread of COVID-19.

Employees at his restaurant, Cloud 9 Cafe in Spring Township, wear masks and have their temperatures checked before starting work each day. Thorough sanitation is done daily, everything gets cleaned frequently.

"We're trying to comply with everything we can," he said Wednesday.

But shutting down indoor dining for three weeks? That's just not an option.

"In order to stay open and serve our community now and for future years, we have to push back a little bit," he said. "We have to fight for our right to make a living."

Heebner is not alone.

Claiming they are being treated unfairly and need to remain open to stay afloat, owners of several Berks County restaurants recently ordered to close for violating state COVID-19 restrictions say they will not be shutting their doors.

And it’s unclear if the state will do anything to force their hand.

On Dec. 10, Gov. Tom Wolf announced a slate of new statewide COVID-19 restrictions.

With Pennsylvania facing its worst period of the ongoing pandemic, the restrictions were an attempt to slow the spread of the infectious disease and stave off a potential boom in case numbers and deaths over the holiday season.

The new restrictions went into effect Dec. 12 and are set to expire Jan. 4.

One of the more severe of the temporary rules was a shutdown of indoor dining.

A small group of restaurant owners, claiming previous bans on indoor dining and limits on capacities have crippled them, have refused to comply. And because of that, a handful of them have received orders from the state Department of Agriculture to close down.

The department since August has been releasing weekly reports detailing warnings and closure notices issued to businesses defying Wolf's coronavirus restrictions. The list released Tuesday included 40 restaurants across the state that have been ordered to shut down.

Ten of them are in Berks.

The process

Shannon Powers, Department of Agriculture spokeswoman, said most of the closure orders for violating COVID-19 restrictions stem from complaints from the public.

When a complaint is received, she said, the department inspects the business in question. If the business is found to be in violation and refuses to takes steps to comply, the owners of the business are issued an order to close.

Forty closure orders and 180 warnings were issued last week, according to information from the department. Ten of the closure orders and 26 of the warnings were given to Berks restaurants.

Powers said she could not say why such a large portion of the closure orders were issued in Berks.

"It may have been there were more complaints in Berks County," she said.

Powers downplayed the list of 40 closure orders released Tuesday — which dwarfed the one order reported the previous week — stressing the businesses refusing to comply with COVID-19 restrictions represent a small fraction of businesses in the state.

"Ten restaurants is really a tiny number in comparison to the overall number," she said, adding that the department is in charge of inspecting more than 42,000 businesses across the state. "The vast majority are complying. It's a tiny, tiny number in the overall picture."

Restaurants and other businesses that violate COVID-19 restrictions can be subject to fines. However, Powers said that isn't decided by the Department of Agriculture.

Instead, she said, violations are passed along to the Department of Health to determine if further enforcement measures are needed.

Officials from the Department of Health did not immediately respond to messages Wednesday seeking more information on any additional enforcement measures for the 10 restaurants in Berks.

The governor's office also did not immediately respond to messages Wednesday seeking comment on enforcement of the COVID-19 restrictions.

DA's not enforcing it

Berks County District Attorney John T. Adams said enforcement of COVID-19 restrictions won't be coming from his office.

Adams said he is encouraging restaurants to follow the governor’s orders on closing, and said there have been cases where local or state law enforcement has asked the businesses to do so as well.

But Adams said no restaurants have been cited or fined in Berks, and said he would not pursue that action.

Adams said it's not clear whether the governor's order is enforceable, and even if it is he prefers that law enforcement officers and his office focus on true crimes being committed.

Beyond that, Adams said he’s sympathetic to restaurants, bars, and all those in the hospitality industry for the hit they’ve taken during the pandemic, and does not want to make things even harder for them.

"We have been asking for voluntary compliance since Day 1, and we will not go further than that," he said. "We have absolutely no intention of enforcing the governor’s mandates. They (restaurants) have suffered enough."

Several of the owners of the Berks restaurants that received closure orders said they have not been notified of any fines or other enforcement actions being taken against them.

Trooper: It is enforceable

Ryan Tarkowski, communications director for the state police, said Wolf’s COVID-19 orders have the "force and effect of law" and can be enforced by local law enforcement.

"Local police departments have discretion whether to warn or cite a business for violations," he said. "Enforcement efforts include issuing citations and fines, and possibly undertaking regulatory actions for repeat offenders."

Tarkowski said the state police Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement has also been "proactively" enforcing mitigation requirements at businesses with liquor licenses.

"Depending on the level of infraction, Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board could suspend a business’s liquor license and further enforcement could put the bar or restaurant’s license at risk," he said.

Tarkowski did not specify if any of the restaurants included in the Department of Agriculture's latest list will be facing any enforcement action.

'We need to survive'

Heebner and Stephanie Carli bought Cloud 9 before the pandemic found its way into Berks. Mandated closures and limits on capacity has made things tough, Heebner said, resulting in the restaurant losing money this year.

Having to shut out his loyal customers, even for only a few weeks, would be a death blow, he said.

"Would I love to comply? Sure," he said. "But we need to survive also. We don't want this. We're doing what is necessary to earn a living."

And while he said he would comply if he could, Heebner said he feels not complying doesn't break any laws.

"A mandate is not a law. Somebody didn't go through a civics class," he said.

Heebner said the shutdown of indoor dining is a patently unfair move.

He points to other businesses that have been allowed to remain open, like big-box stores that have "hundreds of people close together in long lines."

"It's not fair and equitable by any stretch of the imagination," he said. "I'd like to see the science that shows restaurants and bars are spreading it more than anywhere else."

'Exercising our rights'

Like Heebner, Francesco and Andrea Amato, owners of Frank's Pizza in Mount Penn, said they don't feel they're doing anything wrong by remaining open for indoor dining.

"We don’t view it as defying the governor’s orders," they said Wednesday in a statement to the Reading Eagle. "We are just exercising our rights as American citizens. Our intentions are not to bring harm to anyone. We are doing what we think is best to take care of our family and our community."

The Amatos also claimed that shutting down indoor dining while other business are allowed to stay open is unfair and said the restaurant industry has received little in the way of help during the pandemic.

"This shutdown is a direct attack at an industry that received little to no funding throughout this whole crisis," they said.

Despite an order from the Department of Agriculture to close, the Amatos said they won't be doing so.

A message shared on Frank's Pizza's Facebook page late Tuesday night — in which they shared a link to a Reading Eagle story about the 10 Berks restaurants that received closure orders — made that clear.

"We are closed until Saturday for vacation," it reads. "That is the only reason — vacation."

Other restaurants on the list also made clear through social media that they would not be complying with closure orders.

Defiance all around

Seasons Cafe in Flying Hills posted a message Dec. 12, the first day of the mandated indoor dining ban, that read: 

"Seasons Cafe will be open for indoor dining despite the government imposed shutdown, they gave all but a day and a half notice and all food had already been purchased for the weekend.

I also cannot in my right mind lay employees off just 12 days before Christmas without any monetary backup for them from the state. We have gotten very positive response from our customers who have been diligently supporting us through this Crisis. Our days at the cafe are most definitely in jeopardy if this continues. I thank ALL our customers and ALL the hard working staff at the cafe for their diligence!!"

Quality Shoppe in Kutztown posted on Facebook on Dec. 11:

"After much debate and research we have decided to remain open for inside dining. We will continue mask and sanitation guidelines and social distancing. We will also have outside seating and takeout. Thank you for your continued support!"

And the Facebook page for Letterman's Diner in Kutztown is filled with messages and memes decrying the shutdown.

One is a cartoon of a chef and two construction workers grieving in a cemetery, surrounded by tombstones labeled "hotel," "restaurant" and "bars."

Another states, "We will be open," followed by an expletive and "Wolf is not paying my bills!!!"

There are also posts about refusing to wear a mask, to social distance or follow stay-at-home orders on the page.

(Reporter Mike Urban contributed to this story.)

comments powered by Disqus