Business owners in Philadelphia and the surrounding area are facing lots of uncertainty in the wake of Governor Tom Wolf's announcement that all bars and restaurants in five local counties would be forced to close their dine-in facilities to slow the spread of coronavirus. While the announcement threatened penalties, it is still unclear what those would be. The potential for civil or even criminal prosecution has not been ruled out.
Governor Closes Bars and Restaurants Around Philadelphia
Late on March 15, 2020, Governor Tom Wolf ordered all bars and restaurants to close their dining facilities in the following counties in Pennsylvania:
The edict was swift, going into effect at 12:01am on March 16. The closure will last for 14 days in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19, or the coronavirus. It does not prevent bars or restaurants from providing drive-through, take-away, or delivery services.
Update: As of 5 p.m. on Monday, dining (or drinking) inside of Philadelphia bars and restaurants has been banned until at least March 27th. Restaurants are allowed to offer carry-out and delivery services.
The announcement came hard on the heels of an announcement from the Governor's office that urged, but did not require, these businesses to close.
The order to close bars and restaurants threatened penalties for those that did not comply, but no details were given on the nature of those penalties.
This begs the question: What happens if a restaurant owner doesn't comply?
Unfortunately, the answer is not clear.
Why It's So Difficult to Determine the Penalty of a Violation
There's no concrete answer for the penalties of a violation of the order to shut down bars and restaurants because the Governor is acting under his drastically expanded powers of a disaster emergency.
35 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 7301 and 7101 give the Governor of Pennsylvania the ability to declare a disaster emergency throughout the state. This allows the Governor to suspend certain regulations that may prevent the office from responding to the emergency.
The whole point of these powers is to allow the Governor to react to an emergency quickly, even if that means leaving the logistics vague and uncertain.
Unfortunately, those logistics include the penalties that people could face if they happen to violate the orders that come out as part of the disaster emergency.
Two Possible Penalties
However, there are some foreseeably possible statutory violations or criminal charges that could be filed for not complying with the restaurant shutdown. Two of the most likely are:
- Health code violation – Keeping a restaurant or bar's seating area open during the coronavirus shutdown could be considered a health code violation. This seems the most likely response. It could lead to a fine and could imperil the licenses and permits needed to run the business
- Obstruction of justice – 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 5101 makes it a second-degree misdemeanor to obstruct “the administration of law of other governmental function.” This can carry between one and two years in jail, as well as a fine of up to $5,000.
Criminal Defense Lawyer Joseph D. Lento Serves the Accused in Philadelphia
Overly vigorous enforcement of the Governor's order to close bars and restaurants over coronavirus fears can lead to innocent business owners being wrongly accused of noncompliance. Criminal defense lawyer Joseph D. Lento can help. Contact him online or call his law office at (215) 535-5353.