An informal alliance of owners and operators of small businesses has formed in opposition to the three-week shutdown of restaurants, taverns and health clubs ordered by Gov. Tom Wolf in a bid to curb the spread of coronavirus.

At first a call for owners of the affected workplaces to band together, the coalition was expanded to take on owners of all small firms because “what freedoms are they going to take from us next?” organizer Dennis Della Penna told the group Monday afternoon.

Della Penna welcomed 44 managers and owners of 24 businesses for the pilot brainstorming session to define the group and its purpose and to ponder what course of action they would take. They gathered at Della Penna’s idled eatery, Bruno’s Italian Restaurant, on Philadelphia Street.

“It’s simple to me. This community wants each business that’s in it to be open,” Della Penna said.

Della Penna and others shared websites and Facebook pages representing other like-minded groups and individuals who had reported their efforts starting with simple refusals to shut their doors in defiance of the governor.

Indiana group members decried what they considered discrimination in Wolf’s order — that restaurants and gyms that generally attract small numbers of customers were singled out for closing while large retailers that attract hundreds of shoppers only abide by occupancy limits. Della Penna also cited a report circulating on social media that claims COVID-19 virus transmission rates are greater at health care facilities and private gatherings than at restaurants and fitness centers.

In exploring their options, the owners and managers, particularly of taverns, debated whether any decisions to open their bars and dining rooms should be done low-key or with promotion. They raised questions and shared experiences of what repercussions to expect from Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board enforcement officers.

Jim Libengood, manager of Black Bull Steakhouse and Saloon, Rural Valley — which posted on Facebook its plan to stay open in defiance of the closing order — said he worried that the Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement would toughen its inspections and strictly enforce rules at Black Bull in the future.

Ken Arthurs, owner of Wolfies and Grubs in downtown Indiana, advised against resisting the LCB but suggested that individual owners, or the group, might have more impact by going to court.

“Money talks. File a lawsuit,” Arthurs said. “Other counties will follow suit. If you win something, great, but if not, at least it will speak volumes. Money talks all the time.”

Phil Bender, owner of PBJ Barbecue, Route 286 east of Indiana, asked whether the restaurateurs’ alliance would take a formal stand.

“If we are going to form a coalition, what does that give us other than pinky handshakes that we are going to open up together?” Bender said. “What does it do for us, legally, if one of us is attacked? How does that help the rest of us, are we going to pitch in, everybody donate money for a fund for attorney fees?”

Katie Haberl Thomas, an attorney in a fledgling partnership in Indiana, said she gathered with the group as a small business representative. She gave no legal advice — “I’m not telling anyone here what to do” — and didn’t have rates to quote, but explained some fundamentals of law.

Bender suggested that retaining counsel would strengthen the businesspeople at the meeting.

“If we join together, we need to be a group, a united group, not just by words but by contracting and all agreeing that we’re going to stand up for what we need to do,” Bender said. State Sen. Joe Pittman, R-Indiana, commiserated with the group and said he was very frustrated with Wolf’s imposition of the order. The governor turned down legislators’ pleas to delay the closing from Saturday to Monday so scheduled events from small parties to weddings could go on as planned.

He said the new order is the latest in the string of disappointments he has had since the pandemic began.

Wolf repeatedly vetoed legislative attempts to influence COVID-19 response, “our state Supreme Court has made it very clear that they think that he has the power to have executive orders because of the emergency declaration,” Pittman said. “We passed a resolution to negate them and the court system sided with him and against us. … I feel like I’ve had one arm tied behind my back all year.”

Pittman said that an alliance of the owners would be heard in Harrisburg.

If anything, Libengood said, the group should stay focused on its one intent.

“You can argue the COVID thing, you can argue everything all day long,” Libengood said. “But that’s not what we gathered together in this room for.

“We did remain open over the weekend and halfway through Saturday night I came to the realization that this … was all about the people who came through that restaurant to support us, and the fact that they want a choice to be able to do what they want to do.

“So, we can all sit in the room and cry and bitch about everything that is going on, or we can decide to do something and stand up together and go forward. … I don’t know if this is going to mean a hill of beans to anything out there, but you never know what you can do until you try.”

The group wasn’t formally asked to decide whether to hire a lawyer, but Della Penna drew consensus from the others that they would meet again, share information by phone and email, and take careful steps.

Della Penna also found consensus when he asked whether anyone believed that the closing would end Jan. 4 as announced.

Crickets.

Arthurs volunteered to start a Facebook page to represent the group, with the mission statement “Doing what’s right for your families and for ours.”

Della Penna told the other owners and managers that he didn’t want to be a leader if the coalition forms, but he that he was adamant about making change and knew he could not do it as one person.

“This is just to see if we can organize,” Della Penna said. “I guarantee you it’s going to take a hell of a lot more work on my part. But I think the cause is just and that’s all that matters.”

Staff Writer/Web Editor

Chauncey Ross represents the Gazette at the county courthouse; Indiana Area and Homer-Center schools; Blairsville, Homer City, Clymer, Center and Burrell; and is something of an Open Records, Right to Know and Sunshine Law advocate in the newsroom.