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A growing number of Pa. businesses are organizing to defy pandemic mandates. This is how officials are responding.

Many of the businesses are organizing in public and private Facebook groups that have amassed tens of thousands of members.

Panico's Neighborhood Grill & Sports Tavern in Lansdale, Montgomery County, is continuing to operate indoors despite Gov. Wolf's prohibition.
Panico's Neighborhood Grill & Sports Tavern in Lansdale, Montgomery County, is continuing to operate indoors despite Gov. Wolf's prohibition.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

In the first few months of the pandemic, a sports bar and tavern in Lansdale followed the rules. They shut down, then reopened to provide takeout, serve customers outdoors, and sling beer and wings at reduced capacity indoors with tables spaced out.

But after Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf ordered a new prohibition on indoor dining statewide, Panico’s Neighborhood Grill & Sports Tavern is operating at 100% capacity. On Thursday, they hosted karaoke.

“I see what’s happening to my industry,” owner Rob Panico said. “We just celebrated our 100th year last year doing business in this town. I don’t want to go out not swinging.”

Panico’s is one of a growing number of Pennsylvania businesses, mostly restaurants and gyms, that are openly defying the state’s recent orders, which ban indoor service at restaurants, gyms, casinos, and theaters through Jan. 4.

Many of the businesses are organizing in Facebook groups that have amassed tens of thousands of members. They use the pages to share advice on how to flout the mandates, pass around lists of hundreds of businesses they say are ignoring the restrictions, and post anti-Wolf memes.

Meanwhile, a web of enforcement agencies including the Wolf administration, county health departments, and police are coordinating to respond to the businesses they say are breaking the law. Health officials are pleading with owners to comply, and at least one county has told small businesses they won’t qualify for financial support if they defy the mandates.

State Police Liquor Control Enforcement officers this week issued 17 warnings and 11 notices of violation to establishments that failed to follow COVID-19 restrictions. The notices precede a citation and investigations are ongoing, so police have not released the names of the establishments.

The state Department of Agriculture on Monday also warned dozens of restaurants they risk a closure order if they fail to comply, but hasn’t released updated enforcement figures since Wednesday.

At least one restaurant, a Kutztown diner, appears to have received a closure order. The restaurant posted on Facebook a photo of the placard — including the name of the food safety inspector — and said it’s continuing to operate indoors anyway. The photo then traveled, being shared across other groups by users who oppose Wolf’s restrictions and cheered the diner for staying open. The diner’s owners declined an interview request.

» READ MORE: Pa. threatens at least 150 restaurants with fines or closure for allowing indoor dining in defiance of state ban

Since the new order took effect Saturday, Pennsylvania has averaged more than 10,000 new infections per day, and the daily average number of deaths hit 200 for the first time during the pandemic. Some hospitals have reached a critical shortage of ICU beds, and health-care networks are sounding the alarm, saying they’re overwhelmed.

In announcing the latest prohibition, Wolf’s administration cited studies that have linked indoor transmission with infection rates as evidence mounts showing the virus can be spread via microscopic droplets, even between people who are more than six feet apart. Health officials say mask wearing helps, but that’s impossible to do while eating or drinking.

Some businesses that have continued indoor service dispute the evidence. Others say the restaurant industry has been decimated by the closure orders and federal assistance programs ended, leaving them no other option but to continue indoor dining and accept the state’s fines, which can amount to $300 per violation, per day.

And plenty of owners are unabashed about making a political statement, saying the governor’s orders amount to overreach. Dozens of restaurants have organized through a group called Entrepreneurs Against Tyranny, or E.A.T., which is led by a handful of owners who have defied the pandemic-related mandates for months.

E.A.T. affiliates are telling restaurant owners that if they receive a closure order placard, they should remove it and keep operating.

Among them are the owners of Taste of Sicily, a Lebanon County Italian restaurant that doesn’t require masks, operates at 100% capacity indoors, and has racked up thousands of dollars worth of fines. Mike Mangano, whose family owns Taste of Sicily, said if they receive a closure notice, “we will not be closing.”

There are also the owners of the Crack’d Egg, a Pittsburgh diner that has continued indoor dining. This week, the Post-Gazette reported two county sheriff’s deputies are in quarantine after visiting the restaurant without masks, and the diner also came under fire for advertising a charity event alongside the far-right extremist group the Proud Boys. The event was canceled.

» READ MORE: White supremacists and other extremist groups are using protests and a pandemic to amplify their message

And there’s the Tunnelton Inn, an Indiana County bar waging a fight against the Liquor Control Board, which threatened to shut it down. That’s according to Eric Winter, a Berks County attorney working with E.A.T. who has advised dozens of businesses on how to flout the governor’s mandates.

The Wolf administration has said the state has the latitude to enforce its mandates under the state Disease Control and Prevention Act. But Winter questions the state’s authority and said enforcement has been inconsistent.

“There is no rhyme or reason to this,” he said. “I have clients who have received four or six citations but no warnings, and others received lots of warnings and no citations.”

The amount of enforcement a business sees can depend, in part, on where it’s located, because municipal police departments have discretion on whether or how to enforce the mandates.

In Bucks County, where a handful of restaurants and gyms remain open, District Attorney Matt Weintraub said he told the 39 police chiefs he prefers their resources aren’t used to enforce the restrictions “and rather that they continue to be available to respond to emergency calls and prevent and investigate crime.”

Bucks County Commissioner Diane Ellis-Marseglia said during a Friday Zoom meeting that “a lot of people are writing” that they’re concerned about gyms and restaurants that have stayed open indoors. She said enforcement is largely up to the state — the county doesn’t have a police department, she said, and “it is local law enforcement as well as state police that need to respond.”

She added that businesses facing economic hardship should “contact us, ask us for help, ask us for direction. Don’t open your gym.”

» READ MORE: Dozens of Pennsylvania restaurants and gyms remain open as health secretary begs businesses: ‘work with us’

Dr. Gerald Wydro, chair of emergency medicine for Jefferson Health – Northeast, was also in the meeting and said his message to small businesses is simple: “If anyone needs any evidence, go to your local emergency room, go to your local hospital. ... There are people receiving care in the hallway.”

In Delaware County — where WHYY reported that a handful of bars covertly operated indoors Sunday during the Eagles game — a County Council member said during a Tuesday Zoom meeting that businesses that don’t abide by the restrictions will not qualify for a new round of small business grants managed by the county and funded by the federal CARES act.

The grants, which will range from $5,000 to $40,000 per business, are expected to be doled out in the coming weeks and are specifically to support businesses impacted by the recent closure order.

A spokesperson for Montgomery County said the Office of Public Health is documenting and visiting restaurants openly defying the orders, then reporting its findings back to the state.

At Panico’s in Lansdale, the owner said he’s been visited by inspectors, but hasn’t been fined or told to shut down. Panico says he has a plan for if state agents post a closure placard on his restaurant.

“Take the placard down,” he said, “and open the door.”