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

State Police issued three warnings since Saturday for violations of the most recent mitigation order.

People walk into the Newtown Athletic Club in Newtown, Pa., on Monday. The Newtown Athletic Club remains open despite Gov. Tom Wolf's most recent mitigation order that requires gyms to halt indoor operations.
People walk into the Newtown Athletic Club in Newtown, Pa., on Monday. The Newtown Athletic Club remains open despite Gov. Tom Wolf's most recent mitigation order that requires gyms to halt indoor operations.Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

Two days after a new slate of business closure orders went into effect, dozens of Pennsylvania restaurants and gyms remain open to indoor service, either openly or covertly defying the governor’s measures aimed at containing the surge of COVID-19 hospitalizations.

Diners, fitness studios, and bars from Pittsburgh to Bucks County have told employees and customers they are ignoring Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration’s most recent order, which took effect Saturday and banned indoor operations among restaurants, gyms, casinos, and theaters through Jan. 4.

While there’s no official count of businesses flouting the rules, dozens of restaurants and gyms have posted on social media that they’re open indoors, some because they oppose the governor’s mitigation efforts that control business operations, others because they say they refuse to lay off employees amid the holiday season.

The businesses include a handful of gyms in Bucks County, including the large Newtown Athletic Club, as well as a smattering of restaurants in the area.

“We have been fighting since March to keep everyone working so they can provide for their families, and we just cannot give up now and let our people go two weeks before Christmas,” the Proper Brewing Company in Quakertown wrote on Facebook, announcing it plans to continue to offer indoor dining, alongside outdoor dining and takeout.

A spokesperson for Wolf said “a vast majority” of businesses are following the latest orders. She said the administration is prepared to “take more strict enforcement actions on chronic violators because it is imperative that we save lives and protect the public by ensuring all necessary mitigation efforts are being followed.”

Enforcement is left to a web of law enforcement and state licensing agencies. Businesses that flout the rules face fines and license revocation, and the state Liquor Control Board could suspend a restaurant’s liquor license.

Since Saturday, State Police issued three warnings for violations of the most recent mitigation order. Municipal police departments have discretion as to whether they’ll warn or cite businesses.

In Bucks County, District Attorney Matt Weintraub said he told the 39 municipal police chiefs that while they can make a call on a local level, he prefers police prioritize using resources to investigate crime and respond to emergencies, not to enforce the administration’s COVID-19 mitigation rules.

“It makes a lot of sense to take precautions,” he said, “but I have a responsibility to keep people safe, and that is law enforcement responding to emergencies and investigating crime.”

Pennsylvania Health Secretary Rachel Levine on Monday pleaded with business owners to comply, citing studies that link eateries in particular with the spread of the virus. She asked residents to “not frequent” restaurants and bars that defy orders.

“I am asking everybody to work with us to stop the spread of this dangerous virus in Pennsylvania,” she said.

Levine called the mitigation efforts “an opportunity to buy us time” as hospitals statewide face a surge of COVID-19 patients and vaccines likely won’t be widely available for months. The latest orders were praised last week by some of the state’s largest health-care networks.

Nearly 6,000 COVID-19 patients are currently hospitalized in Pennsylvania, with more than 1,200 in intensive care. Levine said some hospitals in the state have reported in recent days having very few or “even no” ICU beds remaining.

Some gyms, in announcing they’d remain open, said their operations can be part of fighting the spread of COVID-19. “We believe that we are doing more service to our community if we remain available for them to continue their exercise and healthy lifestyle regimes,” a Bucks County CrossFit gym posted on Facebook.

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

Many had government assistance in the form of the federal Paycheck Protection Program during shutdowns earlier this year, but lending through that program ended in August.

Wolf appeared Monday alongside New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy in a video message to call on Congress to pass an economic relief package, saying he’s “deeply disappointed” with “weak” Republican leadership.

“The restaurant and bar industry should not have to bear the brunt of a global pandemic on their own,” he said on the call.

The Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association said in a statement Monday that the industry is “on the brink of disaster” and that the willingness to defy orders among “law-abiding business owners” shows the Wolf administration should return to its previous restrictions — restaurants could operate at 25% capacity, or 50% for those who went through a self-certification process.

Some businesses ignoring the new rules are operating under the assumption that any fines incurred will be cheaper than closing, or that they won’t be visited by an enforcing agency.

Mike Mangano, the assistant manager of Taste of Sicily in Palmyra, Lebanon County, has been outspoken against the governor’s mitigation tactics and is keeping the restaurant open to indoor dining.

“Everything is great,” he said Monday morning. “Business is booming and the authorities have not visited us at all whatsoever.”

Staff writers Allison Steele and Erin McCarthy contributed to this article.