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Staten Island’s indoor dining fight exposes borough’s north-south divide

Sal Finocchiaro, the owner of Palermo Pizzeria in Richmond Valley, Dec. 4, 2020.
Clifford Michel/THE CITY

BY CLIFFORD MICHEL, THE CITY. This article was originally published on by THE CITY

Sal Finocchiaro, the proprietor of Palermo Pizzeria, located in southern Staten Island’s state-designated “orange zone,” has never met Danny Presti, owner of Mac’s Public House. 

But he’s taking his cues from Presti, who’s spurred headlines for his defiance of the state order prohibiting indoor dining in the high-COVID-19 area.

“I literally sent a security guard to our front door,” Finocchiaro told THE CITY Friday. “Last night, the sheriff came and I closed the gates on him, I didn’t let him in.”

Five miles away from Mac’s, the owners of another “Publick House” say they’re frustrated with a lack of government support. Located in the north of Staten Island, it’s in an area where indoor dining is still allowed. 

But unlike Finocchiaro and Presti, the owners of O’Henry’s Publick House have no plans to flout regulations if Staten Island’s northern half also has its restaurants shut down. Under new rules detailed Monday by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the state will close indoor dining in the city if hospitals near capacity.

And instead of leading rallies like Presti, O’Henry’s has been preparing meals to feed homeless Staten Islanders through Project Hospitality. 

“We don’t want to be mistaken for folks who are operating in that way,” said Bobby Digi Olisa, a co-owner of O’Henry’s Publick House, a British-style pub. 

The differing approaches reflect a split between the Staten Island’s northern and southern halves that traditionally has centered on electoral politics and has extended in recent months to the reaction to COVID-related mask rules and business restrictions. 

The Mac’s controversy even spurred a bit on “Saturday Night Live” by Staten Island native Pete Davidson, who mocked the protests outside the bar, which he said made borough residents “look like babies.”

But for those on both sides of the split, there’s agreement the fight over indoor dining, with lives and livelihoods at stake, is no joke.

‘I Pull Out a Table’

Finocchiaro told THE CITY he requested $150,000 from the Small Business Administration earlier in the year but only received $28,000. He says indoor dining is important to keeping his pizzeria afloat.

Despite the uptick in COVID-19 cases, Finocchiaro said that he’s never heard from an New York City contact tracer — suggesting to him there’s been no sign of the virus at his establishment. 

And while he doesn’t have tables set up, whenever someone asks to eat inside, he’s happy to oblige. 

“I always have customers inside. If someone says ‘Sal, can I eat in here,?’ I pull out a table, put the four chairs in and they’re sitting down,” said Finocchiaro. 

Olisa and his partner also have struggled to stay afloat. They said they spent thousands of dollars on tents for outdoor eating, and retrofitted the pub for safer indoor dining. They’re even walking meals over to customers at a nearby beer hall. 

The owners of O’Henry’s Publick House have been serving takeout meals from their Staten Island pub, Dec. 7, 2020.Clifford Michel/THE CITY

O’Henry’s didn’t receive any money from the government and was even rejected for a small-business grant for minorities because Olisa, who is Black, owns only 50% of the pub. 

The bar reopened for limited indoor dining in October. But that hasn’t been enough.

O’Henry’s last week set up a GoFundMe to stave off closure. As of Monday evening, pledges hit $195 of a $100,000 goal.

Olisa said he’s worried that Presti’s “autonomous zone” declaration will bring undue scrutiny to bars and restaurants across the borough. He also noted that O’Henry’s Publick House has gotten calls from people getting it mixed up with Mac’s Public House.

“We have to find a middle ground to doing things and getting our point across without burning down the entire industry,” said Olisa, who said he was disturbed to learn that members of the Proud Boys attended a rally in support of Mac’s Public House. 

‘The Virus Is Our Enemy’

The state designated the southern half of Staten Island as an “orange zone” last month, which prohibits indoor dining due to high COVID positive rates. Hospitalizations in the borough are climbing, with 228 total patients as of Monday.

“What will it take for the behavior to change?”  Borough President James Oddo asked on Friday.

Oddo, a Republican, hasn’t commented publicly on the recent events at Mac’s, but tweeted Monday: “Don’t let the recent events pervert the fact that there is legitimate desperation among small biz owners on SI.”

But Finocchiaro believes that he and others in the South Shore are being targeted for the area’s conservative political leanings.

“It’s very political how they split Staten Island in half,” he said. “Because the South Shore came out for [President Donald] Trump. So you can’t eat in my pizzeria, but you can drive a mile and a half north and eat inside another pizzeria?”

Last week, hundreds rallied with Presti and Republican elected officials in front of Mac’s, in the Grant City neighborhood.

And at a Monday news conference, the borough’s restaurant association, GOP borough president candidate Leticia Remauro and a pair of conservative activists supported Presti, who denied wrongdoing after being arrested and charged with allegedly hitting a sheriff with his car while fleeing arrest over the weekend. 

Danny Presti, a co-owner of Mac’s Public House, speaks in front of his restaurant, Dec. 7, 2020.Clifford Michel/THE CITY

Some Staten Island Republicans who led the charge to reopen city restaurants in the spring have backed away from supporting Presti since that news broke.

Unlike in the spring, when the North Shore was heaviest hit by coronavirus cases, COVID-19 is now surging all over Staten Island, with the South Shore absorbing the brunt. 

Elected officials are divided between advocating for small businesses and pushing for adherence to public health protocols.

City Councilmember Debi Rose (D-North Shore) pleaded for unity in a statement released Monday.

“The mocking and flouting of public health protocols is a direct threat to the lives of all Staten Island residents, especially our health care workers. These acts must be condemned from all corners of Staten Island,” said Rose.

“The virus is our enemy, not the law, nor public health protocols,” she added. “Let us unite in this fight the way we united after past tragedies such as the attacks of Sept. 11 and Hurricane Sandy. We can do this if we stand together.”

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