The state on Friday dropped two lawsuits against 46 restaurants – including six from Lancaster County ‑ that stayed open during a three-week winter holiday ban on indoor dining, a move that ends the Wolf administration’s most aggressive enforcement of restrictions meant to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Filed in Commonwealth Court Dec. 23 and Jan. 5, the suits by the Department of Health sought, among other things, money the restaurants made by keeping their dining rooms open during the ban as well “punitive damages for the willful and wanton violation of the orders.”
The petition to drop the suits referenced a “decline in new cases and hospitalizations from COVID-19 as well as continued increase in vaccinations” in addition to the May 31 lifting of most mitigation orders, except masking.
“Additionally, the majority of respondents have come into compliance with the Secretary’s orders,” read the petition filed by Mary Abbegael Giunta, deputy general counsel with the Office of General Counsel, which in mid-April took over the cases which had initially been filed by the Attorney General’s office.
Giunta declined to comment on the petition to drop the cases, referring a reporter to the Department of Health or Governor’s office.
“The majority of restaurants have come into compliance with the Secretary of Health’s orders to protect their customers from the spread of COVID-19 within their communities. Therefore, the commonwealth discontinued taking action against these businesses,” said Maggie Barton, a health department spokeswoman who also referenced the statewide decline in COVID-19 cases and increase in vaccinations.
Eric Winter, a Berks County attorney who was representing about half the restaurants, had argued in legal filings that the cases sought remedies far beyond what the law allows. For example, he argued the request for damages was particularly unusual since it implied the health department somehow lost money because the restaurants stayed open.
“I am glad that they have seen that these cases were not appropriate to proceed with and have withdrawn them,” Winter said Friday. “Hopefully this will lead to a better working relationship between the department and the various restaurants and businesses that have struggled in the last year.”
Winter said the restaurants had not initially wanted to make a political point, but were just trying to stay afloat by keeping their doors open around Christmas and New Year’s Day.
“They were not looking to play any political games … they were looking to keep serving their customers,” he said.
Ken Grube, an owner of Yogurtworks Café in Ephrata which was named in one of the suits, characterized it as a “distraction” and a “ridiculous case” that he expected would eventually be dropped.
“It was an overreach of power and a governor on an ego trip,” Grube said.
Six other Lancaster County restaurants were named in the suits, including Olde Hickory Grill in Manheim Township, Brickerville Family Restaurant in Lititz, Quarryville Family Restaurant in Quarryville, Hometown Kitchen in Quarryville, New Holland Coffee Company in New Holland and Park City Diner in Lancaster.
Quarryville Family Restaurant was dropped from the suits Jan. 21 after the health department petitioned for its removal because it had complied with mitigation orders.
The initial petitions filed by the state in both cases reviewed some research on the danger of COVID-19 and described the various health department orders meant to limit the spread of COVID-19, including capacity limits for restaurants, requirements for masks and social distancing, and temporary full closures of dining rooms.
“When individuals choose to ignore those safeguards ‑ by conducting business contrary to those orders by having no social distancing in place, ignoring the masking mandate, and by previously holding indoor, in-person dining - they put the lives of Pennsylvanians at risk and threaten to reverse the significant progress that has been made to resolve this crisis,” read the Jan. 5 petition. “This dangerous conduct of violating standing orders must be stopped.”
While they were filed separately, the two cases were being considered together, and were scheduled for oral arguments June 7.