While the vast majority of restaurants are taking great pains to follow state and local mandates surrounding COVID-19, there exists a small contingency of operators who are flouting those regulations.
The reasons behind their open (and often vocal) defiance are complicated but can mostly be categorized into two distinctive themes: political opposition and economic desperation. The pair, it should be noted, are not mutually exclusive.
“Restaurants that disregard these mandates can expect fines, penalties, forced shutdowns, and potentially adverse publicity,” says Adam Siegelheim, partner at Stark & Stark Attorneys at Law in Lawrenceville, New Jersey.
Despite the potential for serious, costly consequences, these incidences are hardly concentrated; in fact, they are cropping up across the country.
In Castle Rock, Colorado, a municipality about 30 miles south of downtown Denver, independently owned C&C Coffee and Kitchen reopened without any sort of social-distancing measures or face mask requirements. Specializing in breakfast classics and Korean fusion fare, the restaurant had a full house on Mother’s Day—traditionally the busiest day of the year for foodservice. At the time, Colorado’s Safer at Home orders prohibited restaurants from offering dine-in service (later that month it phased to in-person dining at 50 percent capacity).
“While not following any of the restrictions would be risky, certainly the most extreme would be opening your dining room despite a ban,” Siegelheim says.
According to local reporting, C&C Kitchen’s front door had a sign advising customers not to enter if they were afraid to be within 6 feet of another person.
In a tweet that tagged President Trump, C&C Coffee and Kitchen wrote, “We are standing for America, small businesses, the Constitution and against the overreach of our governor in Colorado!” Indeed the restaurant’s social media skewed political, often targeting governor Jard Polis and railing against what it considered to be overreaching government control. It did not, however, focus on economic hardship.
In Shelby, North Carolina, Izzi Que Barbeque espoused a similar motivation in defying the state’s phase 2 restrictions, which limit dine-in service to 50-percent capacity. The fledgling restaurant, which opened less than a year ago, hosted a Reopen NC Sit-in and concert in early June. In an interview with local media, owner Tony Izzi touched on the fear that restaurants like his might not survive because of the dine-in bans, but he also reiterated that the sit-in/concert was a way of protesting governor Roy Cooper’s orders.
Izzi and other like-minded business owners have enjoyed support from groups like ReOpenNC, which formed in early April and has since swelled to more than 80,000 on its private Facebook page.
In April, Federal American Grill in Houston, Texas, disregarded the county’s stay-at-home mandate, and instead opened by reservation only (which reportedly sold out within 10 minutes) and at one-third the capacity.
Owner Matt Brice was also less incendiary in his rhetoric. When interviewed by a local news affiliate, he referenced the financial strain the dine-in ban placed not just on his business, but on his staff, too.
“There has to be a point in time, the bleeding from the restaurant needs to stop. These [employees] have got to get back to work, but safely,” Brice said in April.
Though this action was in direct violation of the county mandate and earned Brice a public rebuke by county judge Linda Hidalgo, he was not fined and the restaurant continued offering dine-in service until this week. Instances like this where rulings are made but not carried out are becoming all too common as Americans and our governing bodies remain divided over how to address the crisis.
“We are in uncharted territory, as the country has not experienced this type of pandemic in over 100 years, so I see courts establishing new rulings rather than relying on precedents,” Siegelheim says.
Last Monday, a new executive order requiring customers to wear face masks went into effect as a result of the spike in COVID-19 cases within the greater Houston area. Even before the order, some restaurants, keenly aware of the growing caseload, reverted to off-premises only.
Although Federal American Grill had defied the earlier mandate, it, too, returned to takeout, curbside, and delivery. In a Facebook post, Brice wrote, “We have agonized over how to do what we do under the most recent mask order… We are simply not willing to police others’ choices—nor do we want to risk hurting anyone.”
The unprecedented nature of the coronavirus makes legal responses squishy at best. As in the case of Federal American Grill, a judge’s order was ignored without penalty.
Although Izzi Que announced on Facebook that it was back to 100 percent capacity despite the mandated limited being half that, no action has been taken (though it should be noted that some businesses within the area have received citations and court dates). In terms of enforcement, dine-in service is straightforward, but that’s not the case with capacity restrictions.
“We’re not used to enforcing occupancy,” Shelby police chief Jeff Ledford told a local news outlet. “A lot of times it does come down to interpretation. We do the best we can to keep up. A lot of it is ambiguous, so we seek clarity.”
Beyond legal consequences, there are other considerations, like public scrutiny from would-be customers who interpret these actions as irresponsible and dangerous. Resentment from fellow business owners is another, all-too-real repercussion. After all, the restaurants that abide by the mandates continue to lose business while those who break the rules stand to boost revenues, even if it’s just a bit.
In Denver, Chris Fuselier, owner of downtown sports grill Blake Street Tavern, didn’t mince words when he talked about C&C Coffee and Kitchen’s decision to reopen—not to mention the lack of enforcement.
“It pisses me off,” Fuselier told The Washington Post in May. “They should have been shut down on Monday morning. You bolt the doors and you send a message to the thousands of other restaurants in Colorado who are abiding by the order and doing the right thing. I’m struggling, too. My bank account is on fumes. But we need to do this right.”