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The restaurant revival that turned into a revolt

The restaurant revival that turned into a revolt
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After a catastrophic year for the food and beverage industry, America’s restaurateurs hoped the holiday season would mark somewhat of an economic revival — especially with the arrival of COVID-19 vaccines. This month, they were banking on catering, gift cards, and socially-distanced Christmas parties to help their businesses’ otherwise brutal year.

But in numerous states, governors crushed that hope with abrupt and arbitrary lockdowns. Now, across the United States, a restaurant revival has turned into a revolt. In Minnesota, small businesses formed the “ReOpen Minnesota Coalition,” which is raising funds to support those owners hit with legal expenses for remaining open. In California, many restaurants have elected to stay open. Dino Ferraro, a Huntington Beach restaurant owner, told the Los Angeles Times that he’s “not in denial about the virus, but we have to move forward.” 

This trend is especially evident in Pennsylvania, where Gov. Tom WolfTom WolfPennsylvania lifting COVID-19 restrictions, but not mask mandate, on Memorial Day West Virginia governor signs bill restricting transgender athletes Lawmakers brace for battles with colleagues as redistricting kicks off MORE announced a three-week indoor dining ban on Dec. 10. His announcement came on a Thursday evening, after most restaurants had placed and paid for their weekend food orders. In response, hundreds of business owners — primarily restaurants — are actively defying Wolf’s orders by remaining open.

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“I think it’s great,” says Carmela Scalabrino, who, along with her husband, Salvatore, owns the specialty pizzeria, Acqua e Farina, in Newtown, Pa. The Italian immigrant appreciates her fellow restaurateurs being “mouthpieces” for people who are still following the lockdown rules, as she is. Scalabrino told me the specialty pizzeria, just three years old, was still trying to become profitable when Wolf mandated this spring’s first round of business closures. 

The Wolf administration has sent letters to at least 150 noncompliant businesses warning of closure and fines of up to $300 per day. With three children under age 5, Scalabrino decided to follow the latest rules since government fines, along with the cost to fight them, would bankrupt her family. “It’s a sad time when standing up for your rights also means you won’t be able to provide for your family.” One Facebook group, which already has 65,000 members, posts businesses remaining open to encourage patronage and support.

This defiance contrasts with earlier this year, when most small business owners — and the public at large — supported a temporary shutdown to “flatten the curve.” Now, increasing numbers of Pennsylvanians are demanding lawmakers prove that business shutdowns are necessary. No doubt, Wolf’s past refusal to comply with basic transparency measures fuels skepticism. In recent months, he spurned transparency legislation and even enacted a suspension of open records requests. Such leadership, under the guise of emergency powers, has hurt Wolf’s credibility with some. 

Current evidence, though, doesn’t support the extent of restaurant closures, either. In fact, Pennsylvania officials have yet to produce convincing data to support their sweeping measures. According to a new state Department of Health survey, just 100 individuals — 3.4 percent of survey respondents — with confirmed COVID-19 cases said they had visited a restaurant prior to the onset of symptoms. Meanwhile, at a news conference last week, a commissioner in Montgomery County, Philadelphia’s largest suburb, confirmed to a reporter that contact tracers found “almost no transmissions in restaurants.”

For those who have poured their fortunes into these businesses, it’s galling that such scant data are used to justify restricting a sector already devastated by pandemic mitigation policies. 

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In response, business owners are not only refusing to comply, they are also taking legal action. Last week, a group of Pennsylvania restaurant and bar owners announced a lawsuit, seeking an injunction on Wolf’s indoor dining prohibition. This follows a September federal ruling that struck down some of his earlier restrictions on indoor and outdoor gatherings. The ruling, currently on appeal, gives businesses hope that there is a check on the governor’s powers. It even spurred Westmoreland County Sheriff James Albert to join sheriffs from Elk and Lancaster counties in refusing to enforce his latest orders. Albert, a former judge, says he believes the governor’s orders violate the balance between government mandates and the protection of “individual civil liberties.”

In Bucks County, Scalabrino is left wondering what the future holds for her family. “What happens after all this? I don’t have business. I don’t have money. I can’t provide for my children,” she worries. “I can’t move forward. And then what? I’m worse off. I almost wish I got the virus because now I lost my business.” 

Jennifer Stefano is vice president and chief innovation officer at the Commonwealth Foundation, Pennsylvania’s free-market think tank. Follow her on Twitter @jenniferstefano