Taste of Sicily, a family-owned restaurant in Palmyra that reopened for eat-in dining in defiance of Gov. Tom Wolf’s orders closing restaurants in Lebanon and other counties that remain in the “red” and “yellow” phases of the COVID-19 recovery plan, isn’t worried about reprisals from the state.
“This is what America is all about,” co-owner Christine Wartluft posted on the eatery’s Facebook page on May 24. “Standing up for what we believe and supporting and banding TOGETHER!”
Wartluft said the restaurant will continue to stay open — in fact, the restaurant on May 25 expanded its hours of operation to seven days a week — and promised to “fight the good fight … without ceasing.”
“WE ARE DETERMINED NOW MORE THAN EVER TO KEEP OUR DOORS OPEN FOR DINING,” Wartluft wrote on Facebook.
Restaurant owners aren’t concerned about actions recently taken against two Round the Clock Diner locations in York.
Shannon Powers, press secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, said in an email May 27 that Round the Clock, “following two written warnings … had their licenses suspended on May 22 for offering dine-in service” in violation of an order by state Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine.
Food inspectors returned to the York locations on May 26, Powers said, and “finding the restaurants operating with suspended licenses, inspectors delivered notices assessing each with a $1,000 civil penalty.”
According to documents provided by Powers, further violations could lead to additional fines.
“Two other restaurants, both in Wayne County, have received warnings from the Pennsylvania State Police, followed by notices of violation from the Department of Health,” she said. “If these restaurants continue to offer dine-in service, the third enforcement step is license suspension.”
Powers said the agriculture department, which handles restaurant inspections, is “following up on 284 complaints of retail food facilities either violating Governor Wolf’s March 19 executive order prohibiting dine-in service or failing to adhere to business guidance for wearing masks, social distancing and other measures to reduce the risk of COVID-19 exposure for customers and staff. Fifty-five of the complaints were of restaurants offering dine-in service.”
Most of the restaurants have complied with the state’s order following an inspection, she said. Powers confirmed that Taste of Sicily was among the restaurants for which it had received complaints, and that the agency was in the process of following up. A search of the state’s food safety database revealed no recent inspections for Taste of Sicily.
Michael Mangano, a spokesman for Taste of Sicily, said in a May 25 message that the restaurant has “not been contacted by the state, we are not concerned with anything, we are doing things in a very good, and safe like manner, we are still open.”
Mangano also said that state Sen. Dave Arnold, who represents the 48th District covering Lebanon County and parts of York and Dauphin counties, “also reached out to us, and told us that if we need any help or have any issues to call upon him.”
Arnold did not respond to a request for comment.
In a follow-up inquiry on Thursday, May 28, Mangano said the restaurant did receive “an initial notice from Palmyra police. This is the only notice Taste of Sicily has received,” although he said state police may have initiated the contact through the local department.
“We have only received one warning to be clear, and for the record,” Mangano said.
Powers said in an email that restaurants “cannot operate with a suspended license. A business can have its suspended license restored by ceasing dine-in service and undergoing a follow-up inspection to confirm that they are no longer violating the public health order.”
The state agriculture department “licenses retail food facilities and has the legal authority to penalize and adjudicate violations of statutory public health requirements in these facilities,” she explained. “The department’s goal is not to penalize businesses, but to protect the health and safety of those who buy food in Pennsylvania.”
Lebanon County Commissioners on May 15 approved a non-binding resolution shifting Lebanon County into the “yellow phase” of the state’s phased plan to reopen the state, even though the state still listed Lebanon County as “red.”
Taste of Sicily, at 132 E. Main St., reopened its dining room for eat-in traffic that same day.
Lebanon County officially moved into “yellow” on Friday, May 29, but even in the “yellow phase,” according to the state, restaurants should remain limited to delivery and takeout operations, although the state recently amended those guidelines to allow for outdoor dining effective June 5.
Prior to reopening for dine-in service on May 15, Mangano said, the restaurant was open only for takeout and delivery. Business “definitely took a hit” while the dining room was closed, he said at the time.
In an interview shortly after reopening, Mangano said the restaurant was “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.”
Since then, many people have posted favorable comments on the restaurant’s Facebook page, lauding them for reopening and promising support. Some people urged caution, warning restaurant owners that they could face reprisals from the state.
“This was a big decision and we have had counsel,” the restaurant responded to one warning.
Lebanon County District Attorney Pier Hess Graf issued a press release earlier this month in which she said her office would not prosecute or pursue legal action against any local business that wished to reopen, as long as they complied with the Wolf administration’s April 15 order requiring businesses to take certain measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, such as insisting that customers wear masks.
Mangano said Taste of Sicily does not require customers to wear masks.
“We don’t push the mask thing,” Mangano said when they reopened. “If somebody comes in and they don’t look sick … we have not been adamant about that. We’ll still serve them.”
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