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Some small-business owners plan to defy Pa. Gov. Tom Wolf’s newest coronavirus shutdown order

Wolf and Levine promised no more shutdowns, say small business owners clinging to life. What happened?

Jim Worthington, Owner and President of Newtown Athletic Club.
Jim Worthington, Owner and President of Newtown Athletic Club.Read moreWILLIAM THOMAS CAIN / File Photograph

Shutdown, be damned.

So say at least a dozen gyms and restaurants around Pennsylvania planning to remain open in violation of Gov. Tom Wolf’s stricter shutdown orders set to take effect Saturday in the face of surging coronavirus cases and hospitalization rates statewide.

Following the governor’s stricter mandate, which includes requiring gyms and athletic facilities to close their doors, the Newtown Athletic Club published a statement on its website saying the fitness center will stay open.

The NAC, as it’s called locally, is owned by Samuel “Jim” Worthington, a President Donald Trump supporter and a persistent critic of the Pennsylvania governor. Worthington famously opened his gym last spring as an overflow medical facility for COVID-19 patients.

Now his club is citing its own infection rate data as one reason to keep customers coming in the doors.

“Out of 217,000+ check-ins at the Newtown Athletic Club since June, our data shows a COVID-19 occurrence rate of less than .0001% and no identified community spread,” the club said in its online statement.

The NAC is located just a few miles from St. Mary Medical Center in Langhorne, where nurses say the facility has seen an “exponential rise” in COVID-19 patients and is treating more than 100 a day. A call to the NAC was not returned.

It is unclear how many business owners feel the same way. So far only a smattering of businesses across the state have said they will defy the governor’s orders though anger appears to widespread.

On Thursday, Wolf and Health Secretary Rachel Levine announced a new slate of business and gathering mandates aimed at mitigating the spread of COVID-19, which as of Wednesday was killing more Americans each day than had died on 9/11. In addition to shuttering gyms’ indoor operations, the mandates, expected to remain in place through Jan. 4, include banning all indoor dining and any indoor gathering of more than 10 people, shuttering theaters and casinos, and implementing stricter occupancy limits on other businesses with indoor operations.

Pennsylvania has recorded more than 450,000 COVID-19 cases, and more than 12,000 Pennsylvanians have died. In recent weeks, health officials have implored Americans to stay out of crowds and limit contact with others as hospitalizations and death rates surge. Currently, more than 5,600 COVID-19 patients are hospitalized in Pennsylvania and fewer than 15% of the state’s adult ICU beds are available, according to health department data.

» READ MORE: Indoor dining, school activities, gyms and more suspended under new COVID-19 restrictions in Pa.

Small businesses have been hit particularly hard by pandemic-related closure orders. The number of small businesses open in Philadelphia in late November fell by 31% compared with January 2020, according to Opportunity Insights, a Harvard-backed research institute. Across Pennsylvania, the number of small businesses open decreased by 23.6%.

In announcing the new orders, the administration cited two recent studies out of Yale University and Stanford University, both of which linked restaurants with new COVID-19 infections. The Stanford study suggested restaurants, gyms, and crowded indoor facilities contributed to 80% of infections in 10 U.S. cities in the early months of the pandemic.

But some businesses remaining open cited their own figures. Universal Athletic Club, a large fitness center in Lancaster, plans to keep operating, writing in a Facebook post that it has logged nearly 200,000 “check-ins” since June and there have been “no identified community spread” from those interactions.

A manager at the club said via phone that the Facebook post “speaks for itself” — it says that the gym employs about 200 people and laying them off so close to the holidays “is unacceptable and not an option.” The post, as well as the gym’s website, says everyone is required to wear masks and “if a mask cannot be worn during exercise, please be sure to maintain a distance of at least 6 feet from other individuals at all times.”

» READ MORE: Restaurants have played all their cards against the pandemic. Can they last through the winter?

The governor’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment Friday morning.

So far a handful of restaurants and bars have indicated they plan to stay open, including the Seven Sirens Brewery in Bethlehem, an 8,500-square-foot beer hall and brewery, and Taste of Sicily, in Palmyra, Lebanon County, which sued the governor earlier in the year. Mike Mangano, assistant manager at Taste of Sicily, said the restaurant, which is owned by his mother, has been operating at 100% capacity for months and has no plans to follow the most recent order. There’s no social distancing or mask-wearing among employees, he said, and for customers, the owners “not only don’t require masks, we also don’t recommend them.”

“Our customers love us,” he said, “because the American people can decide for themselves who they want to patronize.”

Cheaper to pay fines than close

In Hershey, Fenicci’s, an Italian restaurant, will remain open to indoor dining despite the new order, according to owner Phil Guarno, who said “if I have to prove my point by being taken out in handcuffs, then so be it.” He said while he “respects the virus,” Wolf’s new mandates are “a gross infringement on our freedoms.”

“The first time, everybody was OK with it because the [Paycheck Protection Program] money was there and it all started like ‘flatten the curve for two weeks,’ ” he said. “I’m not one to really do civil disobedience, but it’s gotten to the point where it’s really do or die. It’s time to stand up against this tyranny.”

David Deimler, owner of Babe’s Grill House in Palmyra, said he also plans to continue to keep his restaurant open to indoor dining with the same mitigation efforts he already has in place: spaced-out tables, mask-wearing among employees, and frequent sanitizing.

Typically employing between 16 and 22 people, depending on the season, Deimler said the decision to keep operating was a moral one, saying it’s “irresponsible” for the Wolf administration to ask businesses to close and lay off workers two weeks before Christmas. Deimler said his employees would likely not receive unemployment benefits before the holiday.

» READ MORE: Philly’s Old City is loved by tourists and residents alike, but it takes a hit from the pandemic

“I don’t like being in the limelight. This is way too political for me,” he said. “I honestly felt it was a moral dilemma. If I close, I am doing more harm to the people who take care of me and my family and my kids. ... This is not about me. This is about my team.”

Some business groups slammed Wolf’s latest mandate, with Chester County’s Chamber of Business & Industry president Guy Ciarrocchi saying in a statement Friday: “Wolf has again overreached [and] misused his office. Closing businesses that clearly aren’t the cause of a virus spike compounding it by offering no aid is irresponsible and cruel. Our communities will suffer the effects for years.”

It’s hard to quantify how many businesses will remain open, he said.

Businesses can be fined up to $300 per occurrence by the state and local police and others. But some repeat offenders racked up thousands in fines earlier this year.

“The reaction to this order is entirely different” from the spring, Ciarrocchi said. “In some cases, smaller family-owned businesses are realizing it’s cheaper to pay the fines than closing. It’s different if you’re a national chain.”

His members are considering legal action, such as an injunction against Wolf’s latest order. That said, most have complied with prior guidelines.

“Last Friday, in a call with the Pennsylvania Chamber of Commerce and hundreds of business leaders, Wolf and Levine told us there would be no more lockdowns,” Ciarrocchi said. “Small businesses have been deceived, mistreated, abandoned. Many have no choice but to fight.”