Restaurants rebel against new COVID restrictions

Operators are turning to the courts and rallying rank-and-file peers to defy new service limits.
Photograph: Shutterstock

Restaurants are rebelling against the new service restrictions imposed by state and local officials, arguing in court and as justification for their civil disobedience that the measures aren’t justified by the true risks of dining out.

Operators have been particularly militant in Michigan. A binocular scan of that battlefield shows an industry-filed lawsuit challenging Michigan’s suspension of indoor dining; a grass-roots effort in Detroit to rouse restaurants into flatly ignoring the table-service ban; and a Big Boy franchisee refusing to halt indoor service within its Michigan restaurants even if that means being ousted from the chain. Civil disobedience there has also been encouraged by Scott Atlas, the former health advisor to President Trump.

But Michigan is far from the only area where restaurateurs are refusing to abide by such measures as a suspension of dine-in service and a 10 p.m. curfew on drink sales. Individual acts of defiance have erupted in areas ranging from Redondo Beach, Calif., where local landmark Eat At Joe’s has refused to comply with a county mandate to halt outdoor restaurant dining, to Koko’s Bartini in Kennewick, Wash., where customers were encouraged to bring a protest sign when they ate at the martini bar in defiance of a statewide ban on indoor service.  Koko’s is now asking customers for contributions to pay the establishment’s legal bills.

In some areas, enforcement agents are joining in the rebellions. The state’s attorney of Illinois’ McHenry County—essentially the county’s highest-ranking prosecutor—has issued a declaration that his office will not enforce the suspension of dine-in restaurant service imposed statewide by Gov. Jay Pritzker. Patrick Kenneally said the governor lacked the authority to impose such a restriction.

“As such, we cannot in good conscience enforce the ban on indoor dining, which may result in hundreds of McHenry County businesses permanently being shuttered, without some definitive validation by the Legislature or courts of the Governor’s continued use of “emergency” powers,” Kenneally’s office said in a statement.

The City Council of Pasadena, Calif., voted to disregard a directive from its host jurisdiction, Los Angeles County, to suspend outdoor dining service. The lawmakers argued that the city had its own health department, and that body should decide what protections were right for the town. 

The California Restaurant Association had filed a lawsuit last week in an attempt to block the suspension of outdoor dining in the county, but its request for a stay was denied by a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge.

A legal challenge of Michigan’s disruption of dine-in service has been filed against state authorities by the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association and several individual restaurant operators.  The  U.S. District Court in Kalamazoo said on Monday that it needed more information from both parties before it could decide on the matter. 

Much of the resistance has sprung from the ground level.  Joe Vicari, CEO of the multi-concept group Joe Vicari Restaurant Group, sent a letter to fellow restaurateurs throughout the state, urging them to band together and oppose the suspension in service as one.

“Our industry cannot survive another extended closure. Thousands of restaurants and tens of thousands of our employees cannot survive it either,” wrote Vicari, whose holdings include the Andiamo chain. “We need to band together and FIGHT BACK."

Even Waffle House, a chain that seldom seeks the spotlight in government matters, has been rattling its spatulas. CEO Walt Ehmer groused to Stuart Varney, a star of the Fox Business channel, that state governments are viewing all restaurants and the risks they may pose as being the same. “What we really want is there to be a distinguishing between bars and restaurants and coffee shops,” he said.  “We want government leaders to pay attention to the fact that not all these situations are the same and a one-size-fits-all solution is not going to work.”

Does that mean Waffle House might defy the broad-brush service limits of some jurisdictions?

We have not defied any authorities yet,” Ehmer told Varney.

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