Ocean County sheriff at odds with state over diner flouting orders
LACEY — The Ocean County sheriff has voiced frustration with the state for leaving local and county law enforcement "holding a leaky bag" in enforcing restrictions on indoor activity among business owners, five months into the coronavirus pandemic.
On Friday, Sheriff Michael Mastronardy helped carry out a judge's order to have the locks changed at Lakeside Diner in the Forked River section of the township. The diner has racked up a handful of violations for continuing to offer indoor dining during the public health crisis.
A day later, Mastronardy, a Republican who was re-elected last year to his third three-year term, said he turned his sheriff's office mask "inside out" and went to get a cup of coffee inside at the same diner to see "what was happening" — violating the state restrictions himself.
In addition to criminal citations issued June 5 and 30, July 24 and 28, Aug. 1, 2 and 8, a cease and desist dine-in order was delivered July 31 to the owner of Lakeside Diner, Alfred Brian Brindisi, according to court documents.
Brindisi's wife, Debbie, told NJ.com that her husband "managed to get inside" as the locks were being changed Friday and refused to leave, which was how the restaurant didn't miss a chance to continue its indoor serving.
Brindisi then had the locks changed back and received a delivery of $4,000 worth of food, as he continued with plans to offer both outdoor and indoor dining, despite the various citations he has received.
"We remain in the midst of a global pandemic. If we’re going to prevent a second wave of COVID-19 in New Jersey, we need everyone in this state – including diner and restaurant owners – to do their part and follow the law," a spokesperson for the Attorney General said in a written statement Sunday to New Jersey 101.5.
“We are taking action to effectuate the court’s order. We regret having to take this action, but Lakeside Diner continues to operate in a manner that puts the public health at risk," the official said. "To date, the diner has been issued multiple criminal citations for continuing to offer indoor dining services in knowing violation of orders from the governor and the New Jersey Department of Health."
The diner typically seats up to 65 people, while the self-imposed reduced indoor capacity has been allowing for roughly 16 diners at a time, the Asbury Park Press reported in June.
Gov. Phil Murphy and his staff deserve congratulations on keeping the spread of COVID-19 low across New Jersey as of late summer, Mastronardy said. He added that with the "numbers good," decisions have to be made that will allow business owners to make a living — including indoor dining.
Mastronardy said with roughly 50 years of law enforcement experience, he still is intent on helping people first and foremost. He said by carrying out the directive to shut down a business owner trying to keep his livelihood amid the pandemic, he was left wondering Friday "who did we help?"
Restaurants in Connecticut, New York state with the exception of New York City, and Pennsylvania all have resumed indoor dining with reduced capacity and other restrictions.
A few days before a previously planned July 2 reopening of limited indoor dining, Murphy backtracked on the plan June 29, citing spiking COVID-19 cases in other states attributed to the reopening of indoor food or beverage services.
Brindisi is represented by New York attorney James Mermigis, whose law firm has announced plans to file a class action lawsuit for New York City restaurants to get indoor dining restrictions lifted there.
"Alfred Brian Brindisi is a patriot," Mermigis said in a written response Sunday to New Jersey 101.5. He who noted his client is a Vietnam War veteran who "loves this country" and who is doing what he thinks is right.
"The governor has not provided any science to prove that the virus is more likely to infect indoor diners in New Jersey than indoor diners in New York state," Mermigis said.
Epidemiologists as well as renowned infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci have said that sitting inside in bars and restaurants is one of the more dangerous activities during the pandemic.
At the state pandemic briefing Friday, State Police Superintendent Patrick Callahan noted the most recent executive order violation by the Lakeside Diner and said Ocean County authorities were continuing to work with the courts to enforce that order.
Mastronardy said he always will answer a call for support from "legitimate law enforcement," so if State Police were to respond to a restaurant owner violating state orders and then called for backup, he would show up.
Mermigis also represents Atilis Gym in Bellmawr, which has repeatedly defied Murphy's executive orders on gym and fitness center operations amid the pandemic.
Gym owners Ian Smith and Frank Trumbetti have been arrested and face more than $130,000 in mounting daily fines and legal costs, recently imposed by the same Superior Court judge who issued the indoor dining closure order against Brindisi.
Enforcement of the judge's orders carried out at the Camden County gym so far have involved both county health officials and Bellmawr police, while their arrest involved the Camden County Prosecutor's Office.
When asked for comment on the Lakeside Diner situation, the Ocean County Health Department said it was not the enforcement agency for the Executive Orders and that the matter should be addressed to state health officials and the Office of the Attorney General.
During the same Friday briefing, Murphy teased a fuller reopening of fitness centers, which, along with indoor dining and theaters, are one of the few businesses that remain under the strictest restrictions. Current state restrictions allow gyms to open only for scheduled personal trainer appointments.
On Sunday, New Jersey reported another 288 new positive cases of coronavirus, pushing the cumulative total to 189,494. There also were an additional 3 deaths confirmed for a total of 14,117 lives lost since March. The rate of transmission stood at 0.9, according to the state's COVID-19 dashboard.
With previous reporting by Dan Alexander, Vin Ebenau and Sergio Bichao
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