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Dying for a drink: Staten Island protesters rally at shuttered bar against COVID-19 restrictions

Supporters of Mac's Public House protest the COVID-19 restrictions at a rally in Staten Island on December 2, 2020. (Photo by Gabriele Holtermann)

BY GABRIELE HOLTERMANN

Hundreds of supporters rallied outside Mac’s Public House in the Grant City neighborhood of Staten Island on Wednesday to protest the closure of the watering hole and the previous arrest of co-owner Danny Presti after the establishment had defied COVID-19 restrictions. 

With the support of Staten Island artist and activist Scott LoBaido, the tavern had declared itself an “autonomous zone” after Governor Andrew Cuomo had placed the Southern part of Staten Island into an “orange zone,” which includes a ban on indoor dining and a 10 p.m. curfew on all restaurants, bars and gyms. 

Taking a page out of the “autonomous playbook” of Seattle protesters, who had put parts of the city under “self-governing rules” during the summer, the establishment continued to stay open past the curfew and served food indoors. But it didn’t remain open for long.

On Tuesday evening, plainclothes deputies went inside Mac’s, ordered food and drinks for a “donation” of $40. The deputies then issued appearance tickets for multiple violations of state and city laws. When they ordered Presti to leave, he refused, and was arrested.

LoBaido, who had set up the zone and signs, questioned the legality of the Governor’s decree.

“It’s the selective enforcement that is illegal. Where is the line? Who draws that line? It says this is now an orange zone, and across the street, you can eat at Applebees,” he said.

Sheriffs guard the entrance to Mac’s Public House on Staten Island, New York, on December 2, 2020. The restaurant was closed and its general manager arrested because of defying COVID-19 regulations. (Photo by Gabriele Holtermann)

Lou Gelormino, one of the attorneys for Mac’s Public House, was convinced that all charges against Presti would be dismissed. When asked if he thought that the sheriff’s department was trying to send a message to other businesses who might engage in similar acts of defiance, he said, “Obviously, this is coming from much higher, the Mayor’s office, the Governor’s office. These orders are coming directly from them.” 

With the crowd chanting “Open Up” and “USA, USA” while waving American as well as Gadsden and Trump flags, State Senator Andrew Lanza pointed out the large presence of NYC sheriffs guarding the entrance to Mac’s. 

“If you are wondering whether or not Charles Manson is holed up in the building, you’re wrong,” Lanza said. “I wouldn’t criticize you for thinking that when you have seventeen armed officers from the sheriff’s office guarding a restaurant that is closed.”

Lanza shared the sentiment voiced by many of the protesters who questioned why Staten Island had been divided into an “orange” and a “yellow” to begin with. 

“The Governor has divided Staten Island right down the middle. One side is the “orange” zone; the other is the “yellow” zone,” Lanza said. “Here’s the frustration, because of this new rule, you can eat inside a restaurant on one side of the street, and you can’t go on the other. You can go to a barbershop on one side of the street, and you can’t go on the other.”

The orange and yellow zones are declared based on the level of COVID-19 severity in each given area, with the orange zones having higher rates of infection. Staten Island’s overall COVID-19 positivity rate is the highest in the city at over 6%. Hundreds have been hospitalized in the borough.

The senator agreed that the virus is real and that it needs to be eradicated but questioned which science suggests that this kind of edict made sense. “How is that 500 people can crowd in Costco? All we have is questions. What we don’t have is answers.”

Mac’s co-owner Keith McAlarney thanked their supporters as well as those who had reached out to them from across the country. 

“Enough is enough. All I wanted to be is a businessman, have something of my own for my children, and you stripped it away instead of working with us. How much more is someone supposed to take?” he said.

More than 270,000 Americans, including more than 26,000 New Yorkers, have died of COVID-19 this year. More than 3,000 Americans died of COVID-19 on Dec. 2 alone.

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