4 Allegheny County restaurants defy orders to close for violating covid restrictions – TribLIVE

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Four Allegheny County restaurants were ordered to close Tuesday for violating Gov. Tom Wolf’s latest covid-19 pandemic restrictions.

As of Wednesday morning, none of them had shut their doors.

Al’s Café in Bethel Park, David’s Diner in Springdale, Gianna Via’s in Whitehall and Il Pizzaiolo in Mt. Lebanon were each cited by the Allegheny County Health Department for offering indoor dining and ordered to shut down completely for seven days.

Wolf’s order, announced Dec. 10, suspended indoor dining statewide until Jan. 4, along with some other restrictions. But tension has been building among restaurant owners since the announcement, with a number openly defying the restrictions.

On Wednesday morning — after the restaurant had been ordered to close — David’s Diner posted a message on its Facebook page assuring customers that it would still be open.

“WE WILL BE OPEN TODAY FROM … 7 A.M. TO 1 P.M.,” the post reads. “BREAKFAST ONLY. FOLKS WE ARE STILL FOLLOWING ALL CDC GUIDELINES WE ARE SEATING AT 50% CAPACITY. HAVE A BLESSED DAY.”

By late morning, the dining room was operating at nearly 100% capacity, with at least 25 customers inside and a wait time for tables. On its Facebook page on Monday, the diner said it would be open at “100% full capacity.”

“We’re not being defiant. We’ve done everything that was asked of us, just like everybody else,” owner David Speer said in the crowded dining room. “This time around, if I didn’t keep my doors open, we would be out of business. Seriously, I’ll be out of business.”

Speer said the county had placed closure placards outside the diner, but the restaurant had simply removed them. There was no other enforcement to keep them from opening.

Customer Derek Morasco of Indiana Township had to wait about 20 minutes with his friend Wednesday morning to get a table at David’s.

“It’s killing businesses and hurting the small guys,” Morasco said of the state’s restrictions. “They need to reopen, and it’s better for the economy and also psychologically.”

Health Director Dr. Debra Bogen has said in the past that the county can only go so far to enforce business closures. The health department does not have the authority to immediately shut down businesses who do not comply, she said earlier this month — it can only order businesses to close and suspend operating permits. From there, it must work through the court system for further enforcement. Bogen said the department is largely relying on business owners and residents to “do the right thing.”

Speer said he doesn’t know what kind of repercussions may come along from his refusal to follow public health orders, but he’ll “deal with it when the time comes” and will bring in attorneys if necessary.

Al’s Café is also still operating, with owner Rod Ambrogi saying the restaurant industry has been “targeted” by the state’s restrictions and “enough is enough.” He said Wolf’s moratorium on indoor dining and the health department’s order to shut down would cause too much harm to his employees.

“I think it’s unfair, and I’ll probably have to pay for it later on with some kind of penalty,” Ambrogi said. “But I’m willing to fight it.”

In the summer, Ambrogi led a coalition of restaurateurs in the region to form the Southwestern Pennsylvania Restaurant and Tavern Association, protesting the state’s restrictions on indoor dining.

Ambrogi added that he is following guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, requiring masks and social distancing inside. Al’s Café was cited for operating indoor dining and removing the health department’s closure placard, among other infractions. According to the department’s inspection report dated Tuesday, the restaurant had completely lowered its blinds, and there was a steady flow of guests with a full parking lot.

Ronald Molinaro, owner of Il Pizziolo, said the health department has been on a “campaign of intimidation” and said he believes there is no scientific evidence indicating heightened risk for indoor dining rooms. (Health experts have repeatedly said virus transmission is far more likely in close quarters indoors and in areas where people are not wearing masks.)

Molinaro said he is determined to stay open, and he encouraged other business owners to follow his lead in defying the governor and health department orders.

“This restaurant will remain open no matter what,” Molinaro said. “The only way this place closes is if I’m dead.”

A person answering the phone Wednesday at Gianna Via’s said the restaurant was open, but the owner was not available before publication of this story.

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