For years, big box stores have been accused of unfair advantages. During COVID, as the stocks of multinational corporations like Walmart and Amazon have reached all-time highs, local businesses have felt the brunt of the government’s coronavirus restrictions.
“There is no scientific data behind the prejudicial way small business has been treated over the past 11 months,” said Donald Kelly, owner and operator of Park Tavern. “Mom-and-pop shops don’t have deep pockets and we don’t have high-priced lobbyists to curry favor with politicians.”
In mid-December a small group of Severna Park restaurant owners joined forces to protest the sweeping orders of County Executive Steuart Pittman to ban all indoor dining.
“It broke my heart to tell my staff a week before Christmas that we were closing on Wednesday at 5:00pm,” said Charlie Priola of La Posta Pizzeria & Italian Kitchen.
The human cost of these orders motivated entrepreneurs to resist in a multitude of ways.
“Avoiding layoffs was a priority,” confided Kosmas “Tommie” Koukoulis, owner of Café Mezzanotte. “Our servers are full-time professionals with families.”
Presenting their case before Anne Arundel County Circuit Court judge William Mulford, Priola and Joe Lefavor of Adam’s Taphouse and Grille worked with Annapolis attorney Ed Hartman. Online, Kelly took his fight to Facebook, aggressively refuting Pittman’s “Dining Out is High Risk” campaign. Despite the odds, just hours before Pittman’s orders were to take effect on December 16, Mulford issued a temporary restraining order halting the county executive’s restaurant ban.
“Thank God for judge Mulford!” Priola said. “Then on Tuesday, December 29, the lawyers for the county executive called us and said they were willing to negotiate and agreed to allow limited indoor dining. Defying the county executive’s order was never taken off the table. We could have been fined. They could have revoked our liquor license. They could have locked me up.”
According to Hartman, no evidence was presented during the proceedings “that a single person contracted or spread the coronavirus at any restaurant in Anne Arundel County. Further, the assertion that hospitals were overwhelmed was not supported by credible testimony. The projections were off by a factor of nearly 10. Initial projections of 13,000 hospitalized (statewide) never materialized; the testimony was that the current number of coronavirus patients in hospitals was around 1,700.”
Since the two-day court hearing and Pittman’s subsequent decision to sign an executive order maintaining indoor dining at 25% capacity, that number has been bumped to 50% capacity. Pittman said he had county residents’ best interest at heart.
“I believe we demonstrated to the court that the county’s decision was based on our strong desire to save lives and protect public health and was neither arbitrary nor capricious,” Pittman said after the hearing. “However, the prospect of a sudden and disruptive closure of indoor dining prompted me to evaluate the best course of action at this time.”
Even with restaurants remaining open, the human devastation continues.
“We’re seeing anxiety and economic fear skyrocket among staff,” Kelly said.
Koukoulis expressed the same concerns, saying, “As a restaurant family, we’re working twice as hard for half as much. We’re not only running a restaurant; we’ve become health inspectors, counselors for people losing their jobs, while desperately trying to preserve relationships with vendors that are financially devastated.”
But local business owners count the community of Severna Park as a saving grace and source of much-needed humor during this unprecedented time.
“As part of the agreement, county officials asked us to participate in contact tracing efforts,” Priola said. “On the first night of handing out the forms, seven clients listed their name as ‘Steuart Pittman’ in an act of protest.”
Critics of Pittman cite his lack of private sector experience. Raised on his family’s farm in Davidsonville, he graduated from the University of Chicago in 1985 before working as a community organizer in Chicago. With a background in nonprofits, he has been employed in neighborhood organizations including the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN).
In a December statement, Pittman said his actions prioritized public health above all else.
“Hospital beds are a precious community asset, not only for COVID patients, but also for the rest of us who may well need them in the coming months,” Pittman said. “We will look back on this winter and ask ourselves if we could have done more to save lives.”
Restaurant owners feel there is a way to keep people safe while still supporting the local business community. Republicans on the Anne Arundel County Council have sponsored reopening legislation that failed along party lines.
“I've never been a political person,” Priola said, “but the residents of Anne Arundel County aren't going to rest until we get leadership that gives its citizens a voice in determining their future.”