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Economy & Business

St. Louis County Restaurants Defy Public Health Order, File Suit Against Page

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Brent Jones | St. Louis Public Radio
The owners of Bartolino's South are spearheading a lawsuit to keep indoor dining open in St. Louis County. They say that at least 50 restaurant owners have signed on to the lawsuit and that the list is growing.

Updated on Nov. 18 with a copy of the lawsuit and a response from Sam Page.

A group of about two dozen St. Louis County restaurant owners filed a lawsuit Wednesday against St. Louis County, County Executive Sam Page and co-director of the county public health department Emily Doucette. (You can find a copy of the suit below.)

The plaintiffs, some of which own multiple locations that are a part of the lawsuit, are calling for a temporary restraining order and other relief to keep their dining rooms open.

Page responded to questions about the lawsuit during a press conference Wednesday morning. “There are some individuals and there are some businesses wired for confrontation. There are some folks that just don’t yet understand the gravity of the situation,” he said.

Page said businesses have the right to file lawsuits, but added that the county was successful in handling similar cases earlier this year. He said businesses have largely complied with the new health order so far.

Original story from Nov. 17:

More than 50 restaurant and bar owners are signing on to a lawsuit, the organizer said, against St. Louis County Executive Sam Page in an effort to keep their indoor dining rooms open.

Page recently issued a “safer at home” public health order, which goes into effect Tuesday and is expected to last for a month. Among other things, it orders bars and restaurants to restrict services to outdoor patios, curbside and delivery. The county executive said it’s a necessary move as coronavirus cases surge across the region.

Michael Saracino, who co-owns Italian restaurant Bartolino’s South, is spearheading the legal action, which has not yet been filed. He said Page’s order puts county businesses at a disadvantage.

“We're not being treated fairly and equitable, as far as all restaurants go. We are being singled out as the main spread of the virus. And so we just feel it's unfair, and we're going to try to right a wrong,” he said.

St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson last week announced gatherings should be limited to 10 people, but she did not order any additional restrictions on businesses.

Saracino also owns three restaurants in St. Louis. He said he will continue seating indoors even at his Green Park restaurant in south county. His is not the only restaurant planning to defy the new health order.

“It's unbelievable, the groundswell of support that we've had,” he said. Saracino declined to name the other restaurants joining the suit but said the list is growing.

The Missouri Restaurant Association said Monday it would join the legal challenge.

“Many industry employees will find themselves out of work with the holidays approaching,” CEO Bob Bonney said in a statement. “This temporary order will likely result in the permanent closure of many restaurants across the county.”

Enforcing the new public health order will be tricky. Doug Moore, a spokesman for Page, said the county public health department doesn’t have the resources to make sure restaurants are following the new rules, though it will follow up on consumer complaints.

He said the county has legal options that could force businesses to comply with the order or shut down, but he hopes that won’t be necessary.

“We’d just rather people do the right thing, because if they continue to flout the public health orders they’re risking the safety of their employees and the safety of their customers,” he said.

Moore said Monday that Page had not spoken directly to the business owners who plan on filing the suit. He said a separate group of business owners is calling for Page to meet with them about possible solutions, which Moore said Page is willing to do.

“I just want people to know that the reason for these [restrictions] are not to penalize any businesses but to protect the health and safety of everyone. Because once we get this under control, it’ll actually be better for the economy in the long run,” he said.

Meanwhile, the St. Louis County Council is again trying to restrict Page’s emergency powers.

On Tuesday, Councilmen Tim Fitch and Mark Harder introduced bills that would limit the powers of the County Executive and the public health director in a pandemic.

Similar measures have gotten enough votes to pass, but could not withstand a veto from Page. However, council members believe the lawsuit may help their chances in getting these pieces of legislation enacted.

‘It’s crippling’

Korie Harris, who manages Kirkwood-based Ice & Fuel, is scrambling to figure out how to stay in business with the new order in effect.

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David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio
Customers grab drinks and food inside Ice & Fuel in May, just after the reopening of the Kirkwood-based bar and grill following the spring shutdown of indoor dining.

As she walked into the bar and grill early Tuesday afternoon, she called, “Ladies, we’re closed” to a group of patrons hoping to get in on the lunch rush.

Harris knows other restaurants are planning to defy the new health order, but she doesn’t want to risk any penalties from the county or backlash from her customers.

“Every day we look at our numbers, and we look at how much we've lost — it's crippling losing holiday business not only for the business, but for the staff,” she said.

“We don't want people to think that we're not taking the pandemic seriously or that we're just thinking about the dollar. We have been so strict on every rule and have followed everything they've asked us to do.”

Harris is worried about rising coronavirus cases, but she said Page’s order is unfair and ineffective, considering she can drive a few minutes from her bar and dine somewhere indoors.

“I don’t want everybody to suffer like we are. I just don't feel like the measures that they're taking are going to do what needs to be done, because there are so many loopholes for a pandemic to continue,” she said. “The fact that there are areas surrounding St. Louis County that don't require a mask baffles me.”

Bars and restaurants are allowed to serve on patios or curbside, but as temperatures drop outdoor seating is becoming a less desirable option and many restaurants, including Ice & Fuel, don’t make enough money through curbside orders to justify keeping employees on payroll.

Mimi Fowler, owner of Ferguson-based Mimi’s Subway Bar & Grill, is going to give curbside orders another shot and try setting up picnic tables and a fire pit in her back lot.

“If you don't put a fire pit out there people won't sit,” she said. “I don't blame them. I wouldn't want to go out there and sit.”

With the reduction in business, Fowler said she and her fiance won't need help from their employees. She’s considering signing on to the lawsuit to protect their jobs and her bottom line.

“I've learned this time around to save a few dollars and put it away in case something like this happened again,” she said. “But there's so many of my employees that live check to check. It will be devastating for them to be out of work for a month for the holidays.”

Reporter Jaclyn Driscoll contributed to this report

Follow Corinne on Twitter: @corinnesusan

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