As COVID-19 cases in Pennsylvania and Allegheny County were peaking, Dr. Rachel Levine, Pennsylvania’s secretary of health, said on Dec. 17 that Allegheny County restaurants had been shown to be a major source of cases for six months. And yet some restaurants were still flouting the state’s COVID-19 regulations.
“They’re really hurting themselves. They’re putting themselves at risk, I think they’re putting their staff at risk, and their patrons and their customers at risk,” Levine said.
The next day, Dr. Debra Bogen, the Allegheny County health department director, asked residents to avoid these restaurants. “We rely on you residents to patronize and support businesses that follow the rules and shun those that do not," she said.
But it isn’t easy to find out which ones are breaking the rules. The county health department publishes all of its COVID-19 citations on its website and the names of all the businesses that have been temporarily closed on a different page.
During a Dec. 30 press conference, Bogen called out the “frequent bad actors” that were ordered to close but continued to stay open.
While there is a list of closures where you can find these names, there is no public list that highlights repeat offenders that were not ordered to close. A total of 82 restaurants and bars received citations on multiple occasions, including 20 that received a citation three or more times between July and Dec. 21, according to a PublicSource review of health department citations. On Monday, Jan. 4, restaurants in Allegheny County are allowed to open up again.
The violations are largely for employees not wearing masks, but some restaurants were also cited for not keeping customer tables six feet apart, not abiding by the reduced occupancy limits, serving alcohol at the bar or serving alcohol without food, smoking or serving alcohol beyond the permitted hours.
Most of the locations were inspected after a complaint had been submitted, according to an email from Aaron Aupperlee, a spokesperson for the health department. But sometimes when inspectors were out already, they stopped in at nearby restaurants as well.
Of the 572 restaurants with at least one violation since the county started inspections in July, 130 have not been inspected again to determine if they were abiding by the rules, according to the department’s records.
For example, a Burger King at 1513 Freeport Rd. was inspected four times between August and December and received citations every single time. The health department cited dozens of restaurants for a face covering violation that was corrected by the end of an inspection. But the health department did not visit those restaurants again to ensure they were continuing to comply without inspectors present.
Some of the owners and managers at locations with repeat violation said they were trying to correct the issues mentioned in the citations, some said they felt some of the inspections were unfair and others didn’t respond to requests for comment.
According to an emailed statement provided by the health department, establishments that show continued noncompliance and pose a health hazard “are referred to the Health Department’s Food Safety Program for further investigation, which may include additional compliance assistance and enforcement actions.”
The health department found a handful of restaurants violating COVID-19 rules after having previously corrected their citations. For example, the health department cited a KFC located at 4306 Ohio River Blvd in August because two staff members had their masks below their noses. At the next visit a week later, the health department didn’t report any violations. But inspectors cited it again in September for an employee wearing their mask below the nose. In December, all four employees working were spotted with masks below their noses.
“Decisions on re-inspections are made by the COVID Field Response Team and are made on a case-by-case basis,” according to a statement from the health department. “It depends on the gravity of the violation and an establishment’s willingness to implement corrective actions/protocol.”
The health department has continued its normal inspection process, in addition to its COVID Field Response team inspections. The health department has temporarily closed 26 bars and restaurants for health code violations that included COVID-19 violations.
PublicSource reached out to 50 establishments for this article, including every establishment that faced a closure from the health department for COVID-19 violations or that had three or more inspections with a violation. We included a statement from every restaurant that responded.
Many restaurants have been hit especially hard by COVID-19 restrictions, lack of customers and insufficient takeout business. Still, the vast majority of restaurants have been able to fully comply with the rules, according to inspection reports. About 90% of the health department’s more than 5,000 inspections found that the restaurants and bars were in full compliance. And of those that were not, most were cited only one time for staff members wearing their masks below their nose or not wearing a mask at all.
The compliance rate has also improved recently. Up until October, inspectors were citing about one out of every eight or nine establishments they visited. But during November and up until Dec. 21, the rate fell to about one out of every 14 inspections. There were more than 1,500 inspections in August but only about 800 per month since then. Nearly 200 of the August inspections resulted in a violation but by November only 55 inspections resulted in a violation.
PublicSource is publishing a list of the locations that have either been shut down or have received citations on three or more visits. And we have created a searchable map and database, so residents can look at whether the restaurants in their neighborhoods have been cited or have been abiding by regulations.
Twenty-six different restaurants, bars and nightclubs were ordered to close mostly or in part due to COVID violations. And as of Dec. 30, 13 of those were still supposed to be closed, but not all were complying with that order.The county has the power to close establishments that “represent an immediate threat to health of the consumer.”
A couple of those 26 establishments were cited for other violations as well, including operating without a health permit or food safety violations. Seven have been closed a second time.
And one of those, Savoy Restaurant and Wine Bar in the Strip District, was also fined $2,400, after it continued to operate even after the health department ordered it to close for numerous COVID-19 violations. Savoy had addressed the COVID-19 violations that required it to close for a week in September, but after receiving more complaints, the health department investigated again in October and found customers smoking hookah and around 250 patrons when it was supposed to be at 25% capacity.
Savoy did not respond to a request for comment by email, voicemail or Facebook. The health department said it is considering additional fines for non-compliant restaurants in the future.
Bridgez, a nightclub in the South Side Slopes advertised a “Before the Lockdown Blowout” party on Facebook on Nov. 20. “Soon they will be locking the city down again,” the post read. “We can all read the writing on the wall so COME AND HAVE A LAST WEEKEND BLOWOUT WITH US THIS WEEKEND.”
Bridgez, which had already been closed once in September, was ordered to close again on Nov. 21 for exceeding its capacity, having unmasked employees and serving alcohol without meals, in addition to several other infractions. Bridgez didn’t respond to a voicemail or Facebook message.
The owner of The Crack’d Egg in Brentwood has flouted the shutdown orders and was recently ordered to shut down for a second time, according to the county.
"I have no time...we are super busy,” Waigand wrote PublicSource in an email, referring comments to the Law Offices of Robert O. Lampl.
James R. Cooney, an attorney at the firm working on the case, said that he and his team advised The Crack’d Egg to remain open, despite the shutdown orders. He argued that the state and county haven’t “gone through the formal rule-making process to make the regulations have the force of law,” adding that a declaration from the governor isn’t enough to require shutdowns.
“If they [regulations] are not intended to put small businesses out of business, that’s certainly their impact,” he said.
A man who identified himself as the owner of Carbonara’s Ristorante, which was supposed to close before Christmas but has continued to operate, said he didn’t want to comment but added that, “Right now we take the stand that we’re just doing what we have to do to keep the people here — the loyal employees — through the holidays as best as we can.”
In September, Oddballs on the South Side was ordered to close after being cited for staying open too late, exceeding 25% capacity, serving alcohol without meals, staff not wearing masks and not maintaining distance between customers. An inspector visited previously in August and didn’t note any violations.
“We have had many run-ins with reporters from several different news outlets in this city,” the restaurant responded in a Facebook message inquiring about the violations. “All of whom are extremely liberal and have painted us in a very negative way.”
John Piacquadio, the owner of Piacquadio's Italian Restaurant & Lounge in Castle Shannon, has continued to operate despite an order to shut down. If the state legislature passed a law to shut down, he said he would shut down but he doesn’t think the governor should be allowed to order shutdowns on his own. He said he would also shut down if Wolf closed retail businesses, but he doesn’t think it’s fair that restaurants are being singled out.
He also said he agreed with decisions to shut down some small bars on the Southside. “You have some bad actors,” he said. “I see that, close that down. But I’m an upscale Italian restaurant. It’s like eating at their home at their table. They don’t walk around and scream and yell.”
He is not worried about the long term consequences of defying the governor's order, he said, because customers continue to show up in large numbers. He doesn’t believe the county or state can win a legal case against him, even if they do start to hand out fines.
Piacquadio, who said he supported President Donald Trump, received a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan and closed fully during the first three months of the pandemic, but he worries that the government’s continued orders are a step on the way to socialism. He thinks the pandemic has been politicized and that political leaders and scientists have changed their minds, for example, on whether to require mask wearing.
“I’ve lived through every virus that has been around. We’ve never shut down a country for anything.”
About 11% of the 5,049 visits by the health department between July 13 and Dec. 21 resulted in at least one violation. But only about 3% of the nearly 2,800 locations that were inspected received a violation on more than one occasion.
Yet a number of restaurants that have repeatedly been cited for employees not wearing masks have largely not faced consequences.This included three different Burger King franchises and two KFCs. KFC’s corporate office asked for the locations of the restaurants but didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The manager of a KFC location in West View, Jerome Maclean, was unaware of the violations for employees not wearing masks. “I was here [for the inspections] quite a few times,” he said. “They identified themselves, came in, everything was in order.” Maclean mentioned that he and his staff agree with the COVID-19 regulations and follow them strictly.
Some restaurants that were cited multiple times defended their operations and argued that they were trying to comply with rules the best that they could.
Some owners and managers said violations often occurred when customers weren’t on the premises.
“If nobody’s in here, they might pull their mask down,” said Kevin Bertucki, the owner of Asay’s News Stand in Tarentum, which received three violations for face coverings. Some of his staff members wear glasses and will occasionally pull masks below their nose when customers aren’t around to keep their eyewear from fogging, he said. The county’s COVID-19 regulations, though, are not dependent on the number of patrons inside.
Both Bertucki and Jon Wildi, owner of Fat Cat’s Subs in Cheswick felt that some of the violation reports felt unfair. Wildi thinks that one of his restaurant’s three violations felt especially unreasonable.
“Nobody even came in the building,” he said. Instead, the health inspector “observed from the outside during a shift change,” and wrote up violations on two staff members who had been standing close together without masks. The county’s report states that the inspector found four non-compliant employees.
Wildi told the inspector that the employees lived in the same household, but that didn’t stop his restaurant from receiving the violation. “I don’t feel it was handled properly,” he said.
A Brighton Hot Dog Shoppe location in Mars received three mask violations before passing their most recent inspection in early December. General manager Tom Baranyk says in one instance the restaurant received a violation when one staff member “came in without a face mask, and clocked in and put it on.”
Still, he felt the process was fair and that the inspector properly identified himself. In fact, Baranyk is appreciative of the feedback. “I have no ill will towards anybody,” he said. “I’m glad they came in to help us.”
Gina Nolan, the owner of Miller’s Seafood House in Brighton Heights, which was cited on four different occasions, heard incorrectly from a patron that smoking on the premises was allowed and was cited for that once but corrected it since.
Miller’s was also cited four times for two different bartenders not wearing their masks.
One of those bartenders, she said, “now she has on a mask and a shield. So she’s good to go now.”
Sophie Burkholder began working on this story as a PublicSource editorial intern. She is a freelance reporter now and can be reached at email@example.com.
Oliver Morrison is PublicSource’s environment and health reporter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ORMorrison.