SALT LAKE CITY — About 25 miles from Pennsylvania’s capital city, in a part of the state that is still in the ‘red phase’ of lockdown, the owners of a family restaurant are defying the law by serving customers with in-house dining.
Demos Sacarellos, 80, started Round the Clock Diner 50 years ago. Now he and his son, Themi Sacarellos, 48, operate two locations in York County.
After eight weeks of curbside and takeout service only, during which the business was making just 10%-20% of typical sales, the Sacarelloses reopened their restaurants on Mother’s Day at one-third capacity. They have taken the same precautions ordered in other states where restaurants have already reopened, including requiring face masks for staff, using disposable paper menus and not leaving condiments on the table.
The Sacarelloses may disagree with the governor’s order, but they still want to keep people safe.
“It wasn’t a rash or irresponsible decision,” Themi Sacarellos said. “We are doing this to save our business. This is our life. This is not a joke.”
The Round the Clock Diner has taken heat from members of the public who say the owners are putting lives at risk. While hundreds of patrons have turned up to show their support for the business in the past week, other community members are calling the owners reckless and selfish on social media.
New coronavirus cases are on the decline, but as COVID-19 continues to claim upwards of 1,000 lives per day in the U.S., government leaders are carefully rolling out phased reopening plans in order to prevent another spike in deaths.
The vast majority of U.S. states are gradually lifting restrictions on businesses, including in-house dining in restaurants. But owners are beginning to push back in states that still have significant limiting orders in place, like California, New Mexico, Illinois and Maryland.
In areas where it’s still against the law to operate certain businesses, a growing number of art galleries, barbershops, restaurants and bars are attempting to reopen anyway. Even Tesla went ahead and started production at its factory in Fremont, California, despite warnings from Alameda County officials, who have since given their blessing for the electric care manufacturer to start minimum business operations. In doing so, Elon Musk and other business owners have risked fines and jail time.
Meanwhile in Texas, armed protesters have gathered to defend what they see as people’s right to earn a living. Gabrielle Ellison, the 47-year-old owner of Big Daddy Zane’s Bar in West Odessa, Texas, was arrested on May 4 and charged with violating the emergency management plan after reopening her bar. Six men who had loaded semi-automatic weapons were arrested along with Ellison and charged with having weapons in a prohibited place.
“They don’t have the right to take this all away from us, and they did it. I mean, look how easy they did it,” said Ellison. “I got sick of it and I thought if I lose my license, oh well, if I go to jail, oh well. Someone has got to say stop.”
Ellison was released on a $500 bond and says Big Daddy Zane’s is still open for business.
“I have never imagined anything like this. It’s like a political civil war,” said Themi Sacarellos. “I don’t know how it’s going to end.”
‘Fighting this war’
When Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf first announced restrictions on restaurants in the middle of March, Themi Sacarellos said he was committed to flattening the curve and willing to shut down in-restaurant dining in the name of public health.
“First they said two weeks, then four weeks, then six weeks,” said Themi Sacarellos. “Then the governor said we want to do this until June 4. The day he released that June 4 comment, that was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
The Round the Clock Diner got a Paycheck Protection Program loan to cover payment for about 160 employees for two months, but without being allowed to open the dining rooms, Themi and Demos Sacarellos could not bring back all the staff. Three weeks ago, one of the restaurant’s waitresses, who had been laid off, died by drug overdose.
“We all woke up,” Themi Sacarellos said. “We used to think coronavirus was the only thing you had to watch out for, but that wasn’t it.”
“We’re all fighting this war together,” Wolf told local news station WGAL on Tuesday. “We can’t run up the white flag. We have got to fight this to the end and make sure that we’re doing everything we can to keep people safe.”
“Again, I don’t think that the Commonwealth has been unreasonable,” the governor added.
Themi Sacarellos doesn’t suggest going back to the way they were before the pandemic, only that businesses like his be allowed to operate with common-sense precautions.
“The goal here is to mitigate the risk of coronavirus, or the spread, and return to some level of normalcy,” Themi Sacarellos said. “We have to. We all have a duty to the economy, our personal lives, social lives and families.”
A phased reopening
According to the White House, a phased reopening plan “mitigates risk of resurgence” and “protects the most vulnerable.” President Donald Trump has recommended that states and counties approach reopening in three phases, gradually increasing access to businesses like gyms, bars, movie theaters and sporting venues.
A guide for governors written by experts at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health emphasizes that the physical distancing measures implemented by states are working to reduce the coronavirus cases.
While public health experts agree a slow transition is the best way to keep people safe, Christine Lohman, who runs Hardware Brewing Company, a restaurant and bar in Kendrick, Idaho, say it’s unfair that large food-sellers like Walmart and Costco are allowed to keep operating, relatively unhindered, while small businesses bear the brunt of the deal.
Kendrick, which has a population of just over 300 people, is a destination for travelers exploring northern Idaho.
“More people go through Walmart or Costco every day than live in this town,” said Lohman.
While Hardware Brewing Company got a Paycheck Protection Program loan of $14,000, Lohman, 65, said that wasn’t enough to keep the business afloat. She predicted bankruptcy by August if she didn’t start serving more customers right away.
Survey data collected by researchers at the University of Illinois, Harvard Business School, Harvard University and the University of Chicago this month, suggest that more than 100,000 U.S. small businesses have already closed permanently since March, when the country began to experience serious economic fallout from the pandemic.
When Lohman reopened the bar and restaurant on May 1, she was was met with mixed messages from public officials. Dozens of eager customers, including multiple state legislators, lined up to eat at the restaurant, but Lohman also received a letter and formal visit from the Idaho State Police warning that continued defiance of public health laws could result in the suspension of her retail and alcohol beverage licenses.
In Idaho, restaurants were allowed to open with limited capacity and increased sanitization starting May 16. But bars won’t be allowed to open until stage 4 of the state plan, or mid-June at the earliest.
Lohman said she is not planning on restricting capacity at the restaurant because near-full capacity is needed to turn a profit. She also refuses to take customers’ temperatures or require her staff to wear masks. She believes that normal sanitation measures, like sneeze guards and gloves, that are already required in kitchens to guard against salmonella and other bacteria are enough to keep people safe.
“People want their liberty back,” Lohman said.
Was it worth it?
Other restaurant owners in Colorado and California have attempted to reopen their restaurants, but were ultimately forced to close their doors again. They say it was still worth it to fight back against laws that they feel are unfair.
Terry Letson, 58, briefly opened his restaurant, Fumé Bistro in Napa, California, last week for 21⁄2 days before county environmental health officials forced him to close down in-house dining again.
“We weren’t really asked to, we were told to,” said Letson, who has applied for a Paycheck Protection Program loan but has not yet received one. He has a total of 36 employees, but has only been able to use 11 in a part-time fashion for takeout orders.
“Hopefully some people paid attention and saw the state the independent restaurants are in,” said Letson. “I’m optimistic that we’re moving a little faster in the right direction.”
In California, local governments are prohibited from proceeding ahead of the state’s agenda. Napa County, with a population of 138,000 has seen 90 confirmed coronavirus cases and three deaths so far.
“My whole take on this isn’t what we did as a nation, it’s why are we still doing it now?” said Letson. “Especially in Napa County where we are so far ahead of the curve.”
Jennifer Hulan, 48, who owns Waters Edge Winery and Bistro in Centennial, Colorado, has had a similar experience to Letson. She opened her restaurant on May 1, taking increased social distancing precautions, before being ordered to close again by the Tri-County Health Department.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis’ office issued a statement on May 10 calling out restaurants in the state that have attempted to open ahead of schedule, including a business called C&C Coffee and Kitchen located in Castle Rock.
“These restaurants are not only breaking the law, they are endangering the lives of their staff, customers and community,” said the statement by deputy press secretary Shelby Wieman.
Hulan didn’t originally intend to draw media attention to her business, but says that being outspoken has been a benefit.
“I have so much support that people make it a point to come and support me and say thank you,” Hulan said. Customers have brought her flowers and gifts. One patron brought a loaf of bread with jam, another delivered a homemade candle, Hulan said. Still, the criticism abounds.
“Honestly, I can understand how someone who never spent any time talking to me or coming to look at the space to see what I did would say that — I get it, people are scared right now and it’s an emotional time,” Hulan said. “I didn’t have a choice. I wasn’t doing it to be defiant, I wasn’t doing it to be an outlaw. ... I’m just trying to live my life and run my business.”