Update: Late Monday, Fink’s Hoagies announced that its latest fees had been waived and it would be allowed to reopen, as normal, on Wednesday, Jan. 13.
A hoagie shop was slapped with fees three separate times, and closed once, for a single mask violation in what the owner frames as a power struggle between his small business and the Philadelphia Health Department.
Fink’s Hoagies in Tacony has been a sandwich destination for 14 years, best known for its carefully constructed Italian hoagie, served up on a seeded Liscio’s roll slicked with homemade olive spread. Owner Dennis Fink, a proud Vietnam vet and longtime resident of the Northeast, says his business has been down 40% since the coronavirus pandemic began, bringing in just enough to cover his costs: food, labor, rent, gas, electric, phone.
“I haven’t taken a cent since March,” Fink said in a Friday interview. “My wife says, ‘Why don’t you just close? You’re working 60 hours a week for nothing.’ I say, ‘No, I’m paying the bills.’”
The lean times made it all the tougher when, on Dec. 11, his regular health inspector came into the hoagie shop while Fink’s mask was pulled down as he was making a call. The inspector told him he’d have to close for two days for not wearing the mask properly.
This was the second time Fink’s had been found in violation of the department’s mask policy. An inspection report from Dec. 3 describes unmasked employees as a new violation, as well as employees who weren’t six feet apart. Both instances were corrected on-site and no cease-operations order was issued.
“I said, ‘I was on the phone,’” Fink recalled of the inspector’s visit on Dec. 11. “‘She said, ‘Doesn’t matter, you gotta have that mask on, you’re working with food.’”
Though there were no customers in the store at the time, “I was in the wrong,” Fink wrote in a later Facebook post.
He closed the shop until Dec. 16. On Dec. 14, he paid a $315 fee that was emailed to him, a total he found excessive “by any stretch of the imagination. Do you know how many hoagies I gotta sell makes $315 profit?” (Fink’s hoagies go for $6.48 per half, $12.96 for a whole.)
That was that until Wednesday, when the inspector returned. Fink and his crew were busy making sandwiches.
“We didn’t see her walk in, but we all had our masks on. We don’t want to see nobody get sick on our accord,” he said. Plus, since the infraction on Dec. 11, “we’re paranoid about it now. I’m afraid to leave my house without the mask on, like someone’s gonna fine me.”
According to Fink, the inspector approached and asked why they were open. He said he had paid his fine. She told him he wasn’t to have reopened until she came for a reinspection.
“I said, ‘Reinspect us? You shut me down for not having a mask on. You’re going to come out and say, Oh, look, he’s got a mask on?’” Fink recalled. “I said, ‘You’re kidding me, right? ... 25 days have lapsed.’”
(Fink said he hasn’t received any paper copies of the citations, only emails, the first of which came with a PDF attachment that he didn’t open — or realize existed until his son later went to look at the email again. “I’m not a computer genius,” he said. The first email contained an in-line invoice that didn’t specify the need for Health Department approval to reopen. The PDF contained a signed copy of the inspector’s citation, along with instructions to schedule a reinspection for approval. It also included a blank line for Fink’s signature.)
After back-and-forth with the inspector, an exasperated Fink asked whether she could have her supervisor call him. At that, he said, the inspector left, only to return 45 minutes later with a closure notice to put on his door, as well as two police officers.
Fink told the officers what he had told the inspector — that he refused to close. He said they told him, “’Well, they want us to arrest you.’” His response: “I’m telling you I’m not closing, so you got to do what you got to do.”
In the end, Fink wasn’t arrested. The police wrote a report and left. He said the inspector stayed outside during their visit, then made a call when they departed. Shortly after, a local police sergeant came into Fink’s and asked what the problem was. Fink reexplained the situation, repeating his stance on not closing.
According to him, the sergeant then left and told the inspector that the police weren’t going to get involved, and that the inspector should reach out to the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections for a court order if she wanted to close the business.
When Fink checked his email later in the day, he found a citation and an order to cease operations for employees not masking — described as a new violation — and a second invoice for $315. (The health department doesn’t issue fines, said spokesperson James Garrow, but a fee is incurred when a cease-operations order is issued.)
“Hell with that,” Fink said to himself.
The next day, a woman came in and identified herself as being with the city. “She asked, ‘Why are you open?’ I said, ‘I’m a hoagie shop.’ She said, ‘You were closed.’ I said, ‘I’m not closing.’ [She] turned around and walked out.’”
An hour later, he received another email, this time with more detailed instructions, as well as another cease-operations order and a third $315 fee. It came from the inspector’s supervisor.
After that, he took a disc containing security camera footage of his shop to a lawyer friend. They looked at the time-stamped footage of when the inspector entered the shop on Wednesday.
Fink took screenshots of before and during the inspector’s visit, circling the employees’ masked faces, and posted them to Facebook, along with a note describing the events. “We’re not trying to fight the city, we agree with the mask mandates,” it reads. “We just want answers. We want to be able to continue to run our business without being harassed and shaken down by the city for $315 every other week.”
Before these latest interactions, Fink said, his relationship with this health inspector had been fruitful. He points to changes he’s enacted after citations and recommendations she had made: replacing their deli slicer, dating containers in the refrigerator, upgrading from a “little-guy” exterminator to Terminix after he was closed last February for pest problems. He noted on Facebook that he had installed a plastic barrier by his cash register after she advised he do so earlier in December.
After that posting, Fink heard from many people as well as City Council, including Councilmembers Bobby Henon and Kendra Brooks. Fellow business owners reached out to share their own plight. One recounted being shut down for letting a maskless takeout customer wait inside during a downpour.
Meanwhile, spokesperson Garrow said that following the Facebook post, health department staff has received threats of violence on social media. “They are afraid for their lives,” Garrow wrote, adding that the department is currently coordinating with the police.
Garrow clarified that the department “allow[s] establishments to correct temporary oversights on-site if they aren’t particularly egregious, but in this particular case, the lack of proper masking and failure to follow COVID protocols twice in eight days led to a cease operations order.” He said that before the pandemic, operators were given the opportunity to sign inspection reports on-site, but that has stopped since. Inspection reports are emailed and posted online. Disputes are handled through the Office of Food Protection.
“What do you do?” Fink asks, before answering himself. “You gotta get rid of these high fines, number one. And they’ve gotta come up with a better system and warnings, and educate the business guys thinking that we know everything.”
Struggling restaurants and bars have had to adapt to a slew of new health regulations during the pandemic, including enforcing mask usage and social distancing by employees and customers. Some have evolved over time, but the health department has posted them online and “consistently and widely communicated [changes to them] to the public, press, and restaurants” since the summer, Garrow said.
Health inspectors, too, have been tasked with upholding the new protocols in addition to their regular work of maintaining basic safety and hygiene standards. The department also fields COVID-19 complaints from the general public.
For now, Fink is appealing the citations and keeping his shop open. He can’t afford to pay multiple fines, but he’s also upset about the attempt to involve the police, which he sees as an effort to bully him into paying.