A family restaurant in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania is celebrating this week after the county judge ruled that their business was not guilty of criminal charges brought against them by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture for re-opening their doors under the governor’s COVID mandates.
Taste of Sicily – an Italian restaurant owned and operated by Silvana Drill and her children Michael Mangano and Christine Wartluft – closed down like all other businesses when governors across the country enacted emergency orders to shut down most business activities in March in response to COVID-19.
After two months, Taste of Sicily opened their doors at full capacity. Like many other businesses, their finances were suffering under severe state orders. Businesses have suffered heavily under COVID restrictions, with recent data reporting that 60% of businesses on Yelp that closed their doors between March 1st and August 31st will not be reopening.
Taste of Sicily’s lawyer, Eric Winter, said that “the business needed it. The family needed it, and they needed to do things to survive. They went ahead and reopened. And at that point, they had great support from the local level elected officials.”
One of those local elected officials is Lebanon County District Attorney Pier Hess Graf. Graf has been strong in her stance that her office will not investigate or prosecute any business in defiance of the Governor’s COVID orders. The day before Taste of Sicily’s hearing, she posted to Facebook in their support, clarifying to the community that it was the Department of Agriculture, not her office, that was bringing these charges against the restaurant.
“We stand with Taste of Sicily and behind the businesses which make up the life-blood of our community,” she wrote.
Lebanon County has found itself at odds with Democrat Governor Tom Wolf. In July, Governor Wolf withheld $13 million in federal relief funds from the county due to their decision to re-open early, stating that “there are consequences” to not following the rules.
When they re-opened, Taste of Sicily did not enforce social distancing, did not use plexiglass, and allowed patrons to make their own decisions on whether or not they would wear masks while dining.
The restaurant soon began receiving notices from the Department of Agriculture that they were in violation of law and would be fined.
In the face of these fines, Mangano said, “There’s absolutely no fear here. We’re going to continue to come to work, and the governor ain’t going to do anything about it.” In July, Mangano told PennLive, “We ain’t paying crap.”
Fines soon amounted to nearly $10,000.
The hearing was held last Friday, October 16th. The Department of Agriculture brought criminal charges against Taste of Sicily, but Winter argued that criminal penalties could not be imposed for these violations, and that only the attorney general or local district attorney had the authority to prosecute citations.
Lebanon County Judge Carl Garver ruled in favor of Taste of Sicily, declaring the restaurant not guilty.
“The mask mandate, the plexiglass, the social distancing, all of those things that the governor and Levine were implementing are not an enforceable citation,” Mangano told The Daily Caller. “In other words, they can’t legally enforce that. This says that any fine that you get from the state is legally non-enforceable.”
Mangano is encouraging other business owners to follow their lead. “When you get these fines from these agents do not pay them,” he said. “Plead not guilty, and take them to court. As you can see we won because they had no legal right to fine us for those mandates and guidelines the governor and Levine implemented.”
When asked about the ruling, Governor Wolf responded that he had not had a chance to review it. He pointed to restaurants and bars as a reason for “upsurges” in COVID rates, and said that “how we deal with those restaurants is an important policy tool” in addressing COVID.
On Wednesday, the Department of Health released a statement:
“The verdict has no impact upon the legal validity of the current mitigation orders. It does not impact any other case brought against any other defendant, nor does it deter the administration from taking action against violators who jeopardize public health by violating common sense mitigation measures.”
Having been a criminal case, the Governor cannot appeal the court’s decision. Nevertheless, the Taste of Sicily family is ready for whatever might come next: