Santa called ahead to ensure that the restaurant would be following the social distancing guidelines and was told they were. When he arrived at 5 p.m. on June 9, he was seated in the back patio. It was when he was leaving the restaurant that he noticed the inside of the dining room was full, and he claims the tables were not properly spaced. He also said that the waitstaff was not wearing masks. Santa eventually reached out to the owner with his concerns, and the owner’s response was that he would refund his meal, but “not explain himself to [Santa] or any one else on this planet” on why social distancing rules weren't followed.
Santa shared all of this in a Facebook post that has since gone viral. The restaurant was eventually cited by the Allegheny County Health Department with 11 violations, including employees not wearing masks, not having soap at hand-washing sinks, wiping rags not stored in sanitizer liquid between uses, and other food-related violations. Health inspectors visited on June 22, which is about two weeks after Santa made his complaints to the owner.
The owner, Ron Molinaro, told health inspectors his employees weren’t wearing face masks because they found them uncomfortable. Il Pizzaiolo in Mt. Lebanon is not affiliated with other Il Pizzaiolo restaurants around the region.
These revelations come on the heels of Allegheny County experiencing a minor spike in new coronavirus cases. Over the last four days, 146 new coronavirus cases, or about 36 per day, have been tallied in Allegheny County. Before this spike, Allegheny County was averaging about one-third of that for several weeks. Experts say it generally takes about two weeks to discover new cases, which would put the likely cause of this spike around June 8-11. Santa visited Il Pizzaiolo in Mt. Lebanon on June 9. County officials have contact-traced many of the cases, and have said the spike is related to people visiting bars and restaurants, as well as people traveling in and out of the region.
During a press conference yesterday, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald was asked if the county was considering tightening restrictions in response to the minor spike. Fitzgerald said “we are hoping” that local businesses will follow guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Will county implement tighter restrictions on businesses due to rising rates? Fitzgerald says "we are hoping" businesses are following CDC guidelines -- repeats his analogy to smoking, where people don't smoke indoors due to social expecation, not fear of being penalized.— Chris Potter (@CPotterPgh) June 24, 2020
In a lengthy reply published in its entirety on WPXI’s website, Molinaro says they are following CDC guidelines because they allow people to not wear a mask if “it impedes their vision, if they have a medical condition, or it would create an unsafe condition in which to operate equipment or execute a task.”
“It is my position that the mask is certainly helpful and recommended in certain situations,” wrote Molinaro. “Il Pizzaiolo is a very busy, physically demanding restaurant. The mask quickly becomes saturated with sweat, vapor, and bacteria and is very unsanitary. Staff would constantly need to change it and fuss with it. In our case it would do more harm than good.”
Santa corresponded with Pittsburgh City Paper and said he “was only asking for him to provide some transparency to potential guests as to why he decided to make the choices he did. That way the public can decide if they are comfortable patronizing his establishment. It was never my intention for this to become a political issue. It's about the health and safety of our community.”
Santa said he was shocked by how Molinaro responded when he brought up his complaint and said he hopes loyal customers like himself will receive less confrontational responses when bringing up concerns.
He is also dismayed that his post has become filled with comments saying that wearing masks isn't important to slow the spread of coronavirus. New studies have shown that universal mask usage can lower the cases count in the U.S. by between 30-80%. Gov. Tom Wolf has reminded Pennsylvanians to wear masks, especially when they are visiting businesses and indoor areas.
“I mean I was surprised to see the comment section turn into a political debate about masks when the initial intention of the post was to share my personal experience and for my friends and family to be informed,” said Santa. “The fact that people twisted my words to fit their political agenda instead of simply focusing on caring for our community's health and well-being was disappointing to me.”