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Round the Clock Diner becomes a symbol of anti-lockdown movement

Lindsey O'Laughlin
York Dispatch
A sign on the door of a home in Lititz, Lancaster County, urging passersby to support Round the Clock Diner in York County.

It may not be the "shot heard 'round the world," but Round the Clock Diner's reopening of its dining rooms for sit-down service has become a rallying point throughout Pennsylvania for the growing rebellion against Gov. Tom Wolf's business closure orders.

A bright yellow poster urging passersby to support the diner hung on the door of a house last week in Lititz, a borough in northern Lancaster County, about 30 miles from Round the Clock Diner's two York County locations.

"This hero reopened to dine-in regular service," the poster states, with a copy of the diner's takeout menu attached.

The poster also had an admonition to "fight the new abnormal" and "COVID1984."

"I think people have had enough," said Ron Rutherford, a fellow York County restaurateur who reopened his dining room earlier this month in defiance of Wolf's orders.

Rutherford owns Mamma's Pizza, an Italian restaurant in Wellsville that he opened three years ago, and he began offering limited dine-in service May 7, a few days before Round the Clock Diner opened on Mother's Day.

Mamma's Pizza didn't promote its reopening, Rutherford said, and the restaurant is off the beaten path compared with Round the Clock Diner's locations in heavy-traffic areas.

But Rutherford said he'd like to think his was the first restaurant to give people their freedom back, and he is supportive of Round the Clock Diner and other businesses reopening.

Rutherford is part of ReOpen York PA, a local network of business owners sharing resources and support for those who choose to open their doors without the governor's blessing.

Owner Ron Rutherford, of Mamma's Pizza in Wellsville, Wednesday, May 27, 2020. Dawn J. Sagert photo

State Rep. Mike Jones, R-York Township, is one of the group's organizers.

The website, reopenyorkpa.com, has information about the CDC's guidelines for safely reopening and a primer on the potential legal consequences of reopening.

The group has also established a six-figure legal defense fund, Jones said.

Jones said Round the Clock Diner's determination to keep the restaurant open has inspired others in the community, and across the state, who are ready to get back to business.

State officials, however, contend actions such as those at Round the Clock constitute a dangerous breach of health regulations.

Wolf has stood by his mitigation orders, and the day after the diner opened to dine-in service, the governor threatened to withhold federal discretionary stimulus funds from counties that refused to enforce the closure orders.

He also said businesses that opened in defiance of the order could risk losing their insurance coverage or operating licenses.

Lt. Gov. John Fetterman has defended Wolf and said in a recent interview with The York Dispatch that the governor isn't getting the credit he deserves for his handling of the virus outbreak.

"Why is there only tyranny if there is a 'D' next to their name?" Fetterman said.

More:'We're not committing crimes here': Round the Clock Diner opens dine-in service

More:Round the Clock Diner could face $10K per day fines for dine-in service

Earlier this month, the crowd cheered loudly when Jones mentioned Round the Clock Diner in his speech at a rally in Harrisburg where protesters demanded an end to the COVID-19 business closures.

"They were familiar with who they were, and that was before they (Round the Clock Diner owners) went on national news," Jones said.

Dimos Sacarellos and Christos Sacarellos, the owners of Round the Clock Diner, appeared May 22 on Fox & Friends, the Fox News channel's morning show, to talk about their decision to open the dining rooms at their diners in Manchester Township and Springettsbury Township.

Dimos, the elder Sacarellos, told host Brian Kilmeade that "we're not in a communist country" and that the local community had been overwhelmingly supportive.

"We flattened the curve. We sat down," said Christos Sacarellos. "You know, now it's time to stand up, flatten the fear."

Christos also mentioned that they've had customers travel from hours away to come support the Sacarellos' business and eat inside the restaurant.

The movement to defy Wolf has had a distinctly conservative flair.

Rallies to reopen the state economy have largely resembled rallies for President Donald Trump, with thousands of people waving American flags, "Don't Tread on Me" flags and handmade signs of support at the state Capitol complex in Harrisburg. 

Protesters often wore swag from the president's reelection campaign, and Trump himself has taken swipes at Pennsylvania's governor. 

In contrast, polls show Democrats and those who lean left widely support Wolf's handling of the pandemic.

But not every person who wants the economy to reopen is necessarily a Republican, a conservative or even a supporter of President Donald Trump, Republicans say.

More:Crying Wolf: Protesters lambaste governor's lockdown orders

More:Thousands protest at Capitol with calls to reopen Pa.'s economy

U.S. Rep. Scott Perry, R-Carroll Township, said Wednesday in a written statement that the fight to get the economy back up and running is not a partisan issue.

"People of all political walks are concerned about the same things – I hear from them daily, and they are not all Republican, I assure you," he stated.

Philosophically, Wolf's orders to mitigate the coronavirus by closing businesses and restricting travel run counter to intrinsically held libertarian ideals.

The state Department of Agriculture issued a temporary license suspension against Round the Clock Diner on May 22 after sending formal warnings to the restaurants.

On Friday, the owners were fined $2,000 for continuing to operate both diners under a suspended license, a Department of Agriculture spokesperson confirmed.

State officials have said businesses that continue to operate under a suspended license will be cited in district court and could be fined up to $10,000 per day of violation.

Buck the system: Restaurants aren't the only establishments to buck the governor's closure orders.

Area sporting and entertainment venues are also making the decision to welcome back patrons for events.

Lincoln Speedway in Adams County hosted a sprint car race Monday with nearly 50 drivers and a limited number of fans in the stands.

Spectators were only allowed to sit in every other row, and hand sanitizer dispensers were stationed throughout the venue, track officials stated in a news release Tuesday.

Masks were encouraged but not required.

In a show of support, Rutherford offered 20% off to any Mamma's Pizza customers who brought a proof of purchase from the race at Lincoln Speedway to show they'd been there.

State Rep. Mike Jones (R-York Township) is joined by restaurant owners discuss safe business practices to be put into place for dine-in service during a demonstration at The Paddock on Market in Springettsbury Township, Wednesday, May 20, 2020. Rep. Jones is one of the leaders of the ReopenYorkPA movement. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Partisan fight: At the Pennsylvania Statehouse, the fight over how to move forward after nearly three months under an emergency declaration has fallen largely along party lines.

There was bipartisan support for the state auditor general to review the waiver program that allowed some businesses to remain open, with some lawmakers saying waivers were awarded unfairly, but only Senate Republicans voted to issue subpoenas for documents related to the program.

Republican lawmakers have criticized the Democratic governor's approach to the business closures and his color-coded phased reopening plan.

Every county in the state is expected to be in the green or yellow phase by June 5, the governor has announced, but even in the green phase, businesses will be required to operate under restrictions that Jones said are unsustainable.

Bars and restaurants will be permitted to open for dine-in service in the green phase, but only at 50% capacity.

Patrons will not be allowed to stand around the bar area, according to guidelines issued by the governor's office. They must be seated at the bar and there must be 6 feet between each customer, except for customers who are there together.

In that case, no more than four people in one party will be allowed to sit at the bar together.

Businesses that were allowed to operate at 50% capacity in the yellow phase will be allowed to increase to 75% capacity in the green phase, according to state guidelines.

Salons and spas must operate by appointment only.

"Many of them are not going to turn the lights back on," Jones said of Pennsylvania businesses. "They can’t be profitable under all of the conditions of green, the last phase."