AMHERST, N.Y. — It's been less than a week since several local restaurants, 37 to be exact, banded together to file legal action against Gov. Andrew Cuomo over COVID-19 zone restrictions.
2 On Your Side is told the lawsuit will be filed by attorneys at HoganWillig in Buffalo. The restaurants are asking for a temporary restraining order to reopen restaurants and allow them to operate at pre-yellow, orange, or red zone restrictions until a hearing takes place.
But in the midst of this lawsuit, the owner of one of those restaurants says he is taking things a step further after having his liquor license suspended by the State Liquor Authority last Thursday.
Paul Santora and his partner, Scott, tell 2 On Your Side that following an unexpected visit by an SLA agent on December 29, their liquor license was suspended at the Transit Location of their restaurant, Santora's Pizza.
"Scott said that he went over all the air flow with him and asked him if he needed us to add anything. You know, remove the curtains that we can unzip, and he said, 'No, everything seemed to be not too bad,' " Santora recalls.
In response to that visit, Santora and his team assumed no changes were necessary when it came to their outdoor patio.
They were wrong.
"Thursday, New Year's Eve, at 12:15 the agent came back, and I received a suspension of my liquor license," he says.
On Saturday the SLA released a statement to 2 On Your Side, saying in full:
During a routine patrol, SLA investigators found at least 16 patrons eating inside a fully enclosed structure at this business despite state “Orange Zone” rules prohibiting indoor dining. The structure violates public health regulations in place for over six months that require outdoor dining structures to have at least two sides open for ventilation to prevent the spread of COVID. Our investigations are driven solely by a mandate to keep New Yorkers safe — and any claim otherwise is simply baseless.”
- On December 29th an SLA investigator on patrol conducted a disclosed inspection of the premises, finding at least 16 patrons dining inside a completely enclosed structure on the patio — the patio was completely closed with a metal roof and tarps on all sides, providing no cross ventilation.
- Under the NYS Department of Health Guidance, in place since June, in order to meet the definition of an “outdoor space,” outdoor structures must have at least two open sides for airflow.
- The business is in an “Orange Zone” area, where indoor service is prohibited in order to protect New Yorkers during a dangerous increase in COVID cases.
- Any claim that this establishment was targeted by the SLA is baseless — state inspectors have conducted thousands of patrols across the state throughout this global health pandemic.
- Sixteen additional licenses were also suspended over the past two weeks for serving in “outdoor” structures that were found to be completely enclosed; a serious violation of regulations implemented to protect public health and safety during a dangerous increase in COVID cases.
- All establishments that receive license suspension have a right to a prompt hearing before an independent Administrative Law Judge or can settle the case through an agreement with the SLA Board.
- Finally, it’s important to note that Court denied a Temporary Restraining Order in the Amherst Pizza case on Monday — which means this establishment definitely knew that the state’s rules remained in place and had to be followed.
In response to that, Santora says, the SLA's statement and is untrue. The issue, he says has to do with lighting and a misunderstanding.
"The inside of the patio is bright and the outside is dark," Santora says. Which he believes affected the pictures taken by the agent that were then submitted.
Santora says, he still does not understand why his liquor license was revoked. "We pay a lot of money to heat the patio, the ventilation is fine."
Santora says while both locations of Santora's Pizza are still open, without liquor at the moment, he has moved forward with filing a hearing against the SLA's suspension and is hopeful that things will go back to normal sooner than later.
As for the lawsuit against Gov. Cuomo, Santora says, he expects more updates early Monday morning.