A Palmyra restaurant has received two letters threatening fines and other penalties for remaining open for eat-in business despite orders from Harrisburg to keep customers out.
However, Taste of Sicily owners have vowed to “fight all the way” against the state’s efforts to shut them down, according to messages posted this week on social media.
The family-owned restaurant reopened May 15 for eat-in dining, defying Gov. Tom Wolf’s orders that closed restaurants in Lebanon and other counties in the “red phase” of the state’s COVID-19 recovery plan.
Restaurants in those areas are allowed under state guidelines to offer takeout and delivery service only. However, Taste of Sicily, at 132 E. Main St., opened its dining room to customers on the same day that Lebanon County Commissioners approved a non-binding resolution shifting Lebanon County into the “yellow phase” of the plan.
Commissioners acknowledged at the time that the resolution has no legal force, noting that “limitations on businesses still exist at the civil and state level and it is incumbent upon those businesses to know the risks, especially if subject to state regulation or licensure.”
Also in May, Lebanon County District Attorney Pier Hess Graf said in a statement that her office would not take legal action against business that reopened, 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.
Taste of Sicily does not require customers to wear masks.
In a message loaded with capital letters and exclamation points, posted late Monday night on the restaurant’s Facebook page, co-owner Christine Wartluft complained that they are “UNDER FIRE” from Wolf and state Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine for remaining open.
“I need to stress that I am not a political person, however, because our Governor and The Secretary Of Health want to shut us down, I had to learn politics real quick!” Wartluft wrote in the lengthy message. She included copies of two letters signed by Levine, she said, to “EXPOSE A VERY VERY CORUPT GOVERNMENT IN THE STATE OF PA!!” She complained that she had to retain a lawyer to protect her family because they “WANT TO WORK,” and she said she has not received most of the unemployment compensation she was due and was unable to obtain loads or other financial assistance.
Their only option, she wrote, was to reopen for indoor dining.
“Our takeout business is not substantial enough to support us and that is not how our business is designed,” Wartluft said.
“WOLF AND LEVINE WILL HEAR THIS FAMILY LOUD AND CLEAR! WE WILL NOT BACKDOWN!” the message continued. “I will fight until JUSTICE IS SERVED!”
The “battle,” Wartluft added, is no longer about COVID-19, but “a coverup for something much deeper.”
The letters, which Wartluft shared on the eatery’s Facebook page, are both signed by Levine; the first – also signed by state Secretary of Agriculture Russell C. Redding – is dated May 27, the second June 1.
The first letter notes that restaurants are considered “life-sustaining” under the governor’s order, but stressed they are “limited to take-out and delivery only during the red and yellow phases” of COVID-19 recovery.
“Dining inside the business is not permitted until the region or county your business is located in has progressed to the green phase,” the letter states.
The restaurant’s decision to continue eat-in dining “is troubling in that it runs counter to the mitigation efforts others throughout the entire Commonwealth are engaging in, places individuals at risk of harm and greatly increases the likelihood of spreading COVID-19,” it continues. The letter further states that failure to comply with the order “will result in action against your business,” which could include a fine or up to 30 days of incarceration, as well as suspension of the restaurant’s operating license.
“Please note that each day your business is open is a separate offense,” the letter warns.
The state “may seek administrative penalties of up to $10,000-per-violation, per-day, if your business continues to operate as a retail food facility” after its license is suspended, the letter also states, warning that insurance coverage also could be in jeopardy by violating state orders.
The second letter, which is addressed to restaurant owner Silvana Drill, echoes the previous letter’s warnings and notifies Drill that Levine is forwarding the matter to the ag department “so that they can take any all [sic] necessary action against your business to ensure the health and safety of all Pennsylvanians.”
‘Failed to comply’
The most recent inspection of Taste of Sicily, obtained by LebTown.com, shows the restaurant to be “non-compliant.”
According to the report (viewable here in PDF form), signed by state Department of Agriculture food inspector Heather Sanders, the most recent inspection was on the afternoon of May 29.
The reason given for the inspection was listed on the report as “complaint.”
The inspection showed Taste of Sicily to be in compliance with most criteria, although some inspection items were marked N/O (“not observed”) or N/A (“not applicable”).
The report notes that there are zero “risk factors” and zero “repeat risk factors,” which are defined by the state Department of Agriculture as “violations that can make someone ill if they are not corrected.”
Risk factors, according to the department website, include good worker hygiene, correct holding and storing temperatures for foods, and making sure the food comes from approved sources. A violation must be corrected immediately, the department states, or the entire inspection will be out of compliance.
The inspection report concludes with a comment noting the restaurant “failed to comply with directives of the Department in response to community emergencies” as directed in Levine’s April 15 order regarding in-person restaurant operations.
The restaurant, the report states, is “found to be non-compliant with COVID-19 Governor’s Closure Order to cease dine-in services.”
Round the Clock, which operates two diners in York County, is among other restaurants that have been warned, then fined by the state for refusing a directive to halt eat-in dining, according to Shannon Powers, press secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.
Powers said in a recent email that the department was “following up on 284 complaints of retail food facilities” that were violating Wolf’s orders, including 55 restaurants in the state that were offering eat-in service.
Most of the restaurants complied with the order after an inspection and warning, Powers said.
Michael Mangano, a spokesman for Taste of Sicily, could not immediately be reached for comment. However, on Monday he posted a video on Facebook criticizing Wolf and Levine.
“You got riots going on. You got looters looting. You got people setting things on fire,” he said. “And you want to come down on me and my mother and our family for going to work. … You have got to be kidding me.”
Mangano said in the video that closing restaurants “is a disgrace.”
“Yeah, well, we’re open,” he said. “It’s a green light at Taste of Sicily. And that’s how it’s going to stay.”
Mangano said last week that state Senator Dave Arnold, who represents the 48th District covering Lebanon County and parts of York and Dauphin counties, had reached out to his family to offer his assistance. Arnold has not responded to requests for comment.
By mid-afternoon Tuesday, Wartluft’s message on Facebook received hundreds of replies, almost all of which were in support of the eatery.
“Standing with you,” wrote Cindy Haage. “This has never been about the virus!”
“God bless you for standing up for yourselves,” Erick Hartman wrote. “Just Saturday the dictator said ‘we must protest peacefully in large groups’ but our small businesses are still closed. It’s all part of his useless political agenda.”
“God bless you in your efforts! I believe the good guys will win this fight!” wrote Michelle Bourgeois Becker. “Thank you for standing firm and not giving in to our lawless Governor.”
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