It's a few days before Christmas in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and there is plenty of room at Seven Sirens Brewing Company.
The brewery's 7,000-square-foot tasting room has a fire code capacity of 320, but during happy hour on Monday, there are only about a dozen patrons scattered around the place, sitting in ones and twos at socially distanced tables and sipping beers served by two masked bartenders. Whether they know it or not, everyone here is engaged in an act of civil disobedience, challenging Pennsylvania's ban on indoor drinking and dining that will continue through New Year's Day, at least. It's a policy that assumes all establishments in the state are equally risky—that a tiny, crowded diner or coffee shop is no different than a massive, mostly empty beer hall.
"We're not doing anything wrong," says co-owner Jordan Serulneck, a 32-year old with a full beard and surprisingly cheerful attitude given everything that's happened since Seven Sirens opened in mid-February—just weeks before the pandemic hit. "It was the best timing," he says with a weary laugh.
When Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf ordered indoor dining to close in March, Serulneck dutifully shut his doors. But what started out as a temporary shutdown was extended several times before the restrictions were finally lifted during the summer. When a new statewide shutdown of bars, restaurants, and breweries was ordered for the Wednesday night before the Thanksgiving holiday—typically a major night for social gatherings—Seven Sirens refused to yield. The newest ban on indoor drinking and dining went into effect on December 12, but 10 days later the beer is still flowing here.
"We've been enforcing the same measures here that we did during the summer and we've had no problems," says Serulneck, pointing to the tables spread around the tasting room. With his 67-year-old mother living with him, Serulneck says he takes COVID-19 as seriously as anyone and understands the importance of mask-wearing and hand-washing. Where he draws the line, however, is in listening to orders that come from "people who haven't missed a paycheck in nine months" and who don't seem to appreciate the toll that shutdowns have taken.
"It's been nine months and I don't know how much longer they think people are just going to completely put their lives on hold," he says.
The pandemic, of course, isn't letting up. According to the state Department of Health, Pennsylvania is "in the midst of a spike" in positive COVID-19 tests, with more than 581,000 cases statewide as of Wednesday afternoon. There have been 14,442 deaths caused by the virus in Pennsylvania—a little more than 4 percent of all COVID-19 deaths in the country.
The real crisis in Pennsylvania isn't centered on restaurants or breweries, but nursing homes. Almost 70 percent of the COVID-19 fatalities in Pennsylvania have been tied to nursing homes. According to a New York Times analysis of COVID-19-related deaths in nursing homes, six of the 10 deadliest facilities in the country were located in the Keystone State.
Indoor dining has been identified by some studies as a major vector for the spread of COVID-19, and people should be aware of the risks. But after nine months of being warned about avoiding crowded indoor spaces, the government should trust proprietors and individuals to make their own assessments about what risks to tolerate. After all, the government appears to trust shoppers who packed the parking lot of the Lehigh Valley Mall a few miles down the road from Seven Sirens.
Serulneck is hardly alone when it comes to ignoring the state's shutdown order. PALockdown.com, a website that encourages residents to patronize businesses "standing up to the unconstitutional mandate," lists dozens of restaurants, bars, diners, breweries, and other establishments defying the dining ban. A Facebook group promoting the website has more than 68,000 members.
But the state is striking back. Last week, at least 150 businesses got notices from the Wolf administration threatening legal action, including fines of up to $300 per day, if they refused to comply with the indoor dining ban. On Wednesday, the administration ordered 40 restaurants closed for defying the governor's order.
So far, Seven Sirens has avoided the government's hammer—though Serulneck says the brewery has received warnings from local and state agencies. He's hopeful that a groundswell of civil disobedience will leave law enforcement overwhelmed, or simply unwilling to punish their neighbors.
In some places, that's already happening. The sheriffs of Elk, Lancaster, and Westmoreland counties say they will not enforce the state's indoor dining ban this time around. Westmoreland County Sheriff James Albert told Trib Live that his 40 years of experience as a law enforcement officer and judge have taught him to find a balance between enforcing government mandates and "protecting individual civil liberties."
Judges will have their say too. In September, Judge William Stickman struck down large portions of Wolf's previous COVID-19 lockdown mandate as an unconstitutional use of the state's police powers. By then, however, much of the earlier mandates had been lifted.
Now, a group of bars and restaurants have filed a new lawsuit against the Wolf administration, hoping to build upon that September victory to overturn the newest lockdown. But it seems unlikely that there will be a ruling in the case before the shutdown is scheduled to expire on January 4.
In the meantime, business owners like Serulneck are risking their licenses and livelihoods to stay open—doing the best they can to respect public health guidelines and keep employees and patrons healthy. He has to duck out of our interview to participate in a conference call with other business owners who are banding together to defy the state.
"You have an inherent right to provide for yourself and your family, and that's not suspended during a time of emergency," he says. "Those rights weren't granted by a governor, so they can't be stripped away by a governor."