A family-owned restaurant in Palmyra didn’t waste any time when Lebanon County Commissioners voted to begin the process of reopening the county, despite mandates from Harrisburg shuttering non-life-sustaining businesses because of COVID-19.
Commissioners on Friday approved a non-binding resolution shifting Lebanon County into the “yellow phase” of Gov. Tom Wolf’s phased plan to reopen the state, even though Wolf still puts Lebanon solidly in the red.
That same day, Taste of Sicily—an eatery at 132 E. Main St., Palmyra— reopened its dining room for eat-in traffic.
“The restaurant never really closed,” family spokesperson Michael Mangano said in a telephone interview with LebTown Tuesday. “When the pandemic happened, we did what the regulations told us we could do. We stayed open for takeout and delivery only.”
Business “definitely took a hit” while the dining room was closed, he said.
Although Taste of Sicily was still serving meals, owner Silvana Drill and the rest of the family were eager to open its doors. So, in anticipation of the commissioners’ vote on Friday, the restaurant announced May 12 that it would resume inside and outside dining at noon on Friday, May 15.
“For the record, we are definitely erring on the side of caution,” Mangano said Tuesday. “We are not trying to be any kind of rebel or to buck against the system. We just feel very strongly that we are practicing social distancing and following all of the guidelines … I feel extremely good about what we are doing.
“Are we going to pack the place? Absolutely not,” he added. “If a person chooses to eat in there, then that’s their choice.”
Response to the eatery’s Facebook announcement was mostly positive. Dozens of customers voiced their enthusiasm, promising to come in and eat soon. Only a few people dissented, warning the restaurant of possible repercussions from the state or their insurance providers.
“This was a big decision and we have had counsel,” the restaurant responded to one warning.
The commissioners’ action on Friday “was exactly the reason” Taste of Sicily chose that date to reopen, Mangano said Tuesday.
“We are definitely being sensitive to the authorities and to commonsense social-distancing practices,” he said.
Commissioners are still urging Lebanon County businesses to follow state guidelines for the yellow phase, he noted.
“It can be a little confusing,” Mangano said. “But the Lebanon County Commissioners said ‘OK, we’re going to proceed with caution and open things up.’ Also, the district attorney said they’re not going to prosecute businesses that are doing things that are safe for everybody, So we feel very comfortable.”
Even in the yellow phase, according to the state, restaurants should remain limited to delivery and takeout operations. However, according to DA Pier Hess Graf’s letter, the standard of legal action for the DA’s office would be the April 15 order, which does not reference any business types specifically and instead provides general guidelines for safe operations.
Lebanon County was tracking at 880 cases of the novel coronavirus as of Tuesday, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health, with 3,746 negative tests and 24 deaths from the virus. Lebanon County is reporting only 18 COVID-19 fatalities, a lower death rate than all neighboring counties with the exception of Schuylkill County.
“We’re not doing anything illegal. We’re not going to be prosecuted, but we need to pay our bills. The bills are still due,” Mangano said. “A lot of these things like sanitizing, washing hands—we’ve been practicing those for many, many years. We’ve gone the distance, like a lot of other businesses. We have the sneeze guards and Plexiglas barriers to give more protection to us and our customer base.”
Customers certainly came out this past weekend to make use of Taste of Sicily’s handful of tables, Mangano said—although business wasn’t booming, either.
“I would say there was a little bit of an uptick in business, but nothing amazing,” he said. “It’s a slow climb. With the environment of this pandemic, people have to learn who’s open, who’s closed. It’s going to take a little time for them to realize we’re back. … It depends how aware they are of the situation.”
Restaurant workers are taking common-sense precautions—washing their hands often, using food service gloves, sanitizing the cutlery, the tables, the kitchens and bathrooms more often than usual—but Mangano said that’s a normal day for any food service establishment.
“Look at our inspection record, it’s impeccable,” he said. “The inspector never finds anything wrong. We don’t have a single blemish on our record.”
As for customers, Mangano said tables in the dining room “are placed far enough apart to practice social distancing.” Otherwise, he said, they rely on customers to take the precautions they feel are necessary.
“We truly believe that, if we as Americans are a self-governing people—we go out and elect officials to do our bidding—we can also apply that same principle to our daily lives. If we have a fever or feel sick, we stay home. We don’t go out, especially at a time like this,” Mangano said.
“They can choose to come out and eat. If they want to wear a mask, by all means wear a mask. People can make their own decisions,” he added. “We feel pretty good about it. If anybody feels uncomfortable, it’s their right to not come in.”
Overall, he said, the response from customers has been positive, although a few people have fretted about the lack of a mask policy.
“We don’t push the mask thing,” Mangano said. “If somebody comes in and they don’t look sick … we have not been adamant about that. We’ll still serve them. Some people have said they’re not crazy about the idea, but again, if they don’t like it they don’t have to come in.
“On the other hand, some of the response has been, ‘Oh thank God, we don’t have to wear a mask.’ These are healthy people. They’re not coughing, they’re not sneezing. There’s always going to be the argument, maybe they’re asymptomatic and aren’t showing. But we’re still keeping the distance.”
He’s not terribly worried about blowback from the state about reopening before Harrisburg said it was OK to do so.
“In the political arena, there are always two sides,” Mangano said. “There’s the side that seems to be more draconian, they’re going more hardcore. Then there’s the other side, which really seems more prevalent—whether it’s (state Senator) Dave Arnold, the district attorney, even the commissioners—that says if we proceed with caution, we’re OK.
“We’re not pretending this pandemic is not a reality, that it’s business as usual. But we don’t have any fear because we are practicing common sense practices that the CDC has been talking about. We are not endangering anybody else, or ourselves. If we thought we were, do you think we’d be going to work?”
It’s possible, he said, that the state might try to take action against them for reopening, but “they’d have to make a pretty strong case for why they’d take our license. The onus will be on them to prove and to show the world how we are putting people at risk. … I believe their case would be pretty weak.”
On Friday, the same day as the commissioners approved the go-yellow resolution, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture outlined its enforcement plan for restaurants that offer dine-in services in violation of the Wolf administration’s previous orders. Inspectors will issue warnings at first and then may move to suspend the business’ retail food license and, if the business continues to operate, pursue citations and civil penalties.
As LebTown reported Saturday, the state conducts food safety inspections in much of the county, except in the City of Lebanon and West Lebanon Township, where food safety inspections are conducted by municipal employees.
More information about Taste of Sicily can be found on the restaurant’s Facebook page. The restaurant is strongly suggesting reservations for guaranteed seating by calling (717) 641-3363, and said that while they won’t turn anyone away, there may be a wait for a table without a reservation.
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