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Protest over shutdown of New York's 'autonomous zone' bar for COVID rule violations draws large crowd

Undercover deputies observed numerous patrons eating and drinking inside.

Protesters waving American flags and slamming New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's emergency COVID-19 restrictions descended on a bar Wednesday night that was shut down a day earlier by sheriff's deputies who arrested one of its owners for allegedly violating an executive order intended to blunt a second wave of the deadly virus.

The demonstration came after a team of New York City Sheriff's deputies shuttered Mac's Public House in the Staten Island borough on Tuesday following an undercover sting. Plainclothes deputies were served drinks and food inside the establishment and observed numerous patrons doing the same in flagrant violation of the restrictions Cuomo mandated to fight the contagion, said Sheriff Joseph Fucito.

The owners, Keith McAlarney and Danny Presti, have thumbed their noses at emergency COVID-19 restrictions and declared their tavern an "autonomous zone."

On Wednesday night, a couple of hundred supporters showed up outside the tavern to protest the actions taken against the establishment by government leaders.

"We are just trying to make a living and feed our families," McAlarney said outside the bar Wednesday. "We jumped through every hoop, did whatever they did. But at some point, you can't just keep shutting down."

Presti, who was arrested during Tuesday night's raid on the establishment by sheriff's deputies, also addressed the crowd.

"I probably have 15 fines in my pocket right now. I don’t even know what they’re for," Presti said. "It seems that there’s a new rule or new mandate or new something every single day and that’s exactly why we’re trying to do this and bring awareness to this situation. Who’s making these rules? No one can keep track of it."

McAlarney and Presti, who opened the bar a year ago after extensive renovations, said they had no intention of abiding by the rules. They blatantly taunted state health officials in a YouTube video, saying they were keeping their doors open even after authorities suspended their liquor license, issued a cease-and-desist order and began fining them $1,000 a day.

In the YouTube video released on Friday, Presti said that while he and McAlarney could no longer legally charge for alcoholic beverages due to their suspended liquor license, they decided to serve booze and food on the house. They asked patrons for donations to pay their bills.

Mac's Public House is located in an area deemed by Cuomo to be a virus-risky "orange zone" after Staten Island's positivity rate climbed to 4.15% last week. Under "orange zone" restrictions, indoor dining is prohibited and outdoor dining is restricted to tables of four customers or fewer.

Fucito said deputies staked out the tavern on Tuesday afternoon and "observed multiple patrons entering and remaining in the premises."

The sheriff said plainclothes deputies entered the tavern through its unlocked front door, were seated at a table inside and proceeded to order food and alcoholic beverages in exchange for what he described was a mandatory donation of $40.

By 6:40 p.m. Tuesday, the undercover deputies counted 14 people inside the location, the majority eating and consuming alcoholic beverages.

Armed with the evidence, deputies ordered the staff to close the tavern immediately and began issuing appearance tickets for multiple violations of city and state laws to employees, according to Fucito.

Presti was arrested for allegedly obstructing governmental administration, Fucito said. The co-owner was taken to the sheriff’s office, issued appearance tickets and released, he said.

The tavern bartender, its cook and even its attorney, Louis Gelormino, were all charged with violating Cuomo's executive order and emergency measures, failure to observe the order and failure to protect health and safety.

“I was literally there 20 seconds and 15 sheriff's officers came barging in, two of them rather aggressively," Gelormino told ABC News on Wednesday. “When I started filming, one of the sheriff’s officers got really aggressive, got right in my face and demanded my ID at that point."

He said he was held at the tavern for over an hour before he was handed the four criminal summonses.

"And they completely lied on them. One of them said, 'failure to observe order.' I don't even know what that means," Gelormino said. “But what scares me is if they’re giving me summonses and they’re lying on them, what are they doing to everybody else in this world?"

The sheriff's office had no immediate comment on Gelormino's accusations.

Neither Presti nor McAlarney could be immediately reached for comment. Gelormino said the owners were allowed back inside the tavern on Wednesday, but sheriff's officers kept the news media out.

“Their intention is to reopen, but right now I don’t think they have the authority to do it. The sheriff put a shutdown order on the place," Gelormino said.

As word of the crackdown spread through the community, about 50 people showed up outside to protest, Fucito said.

"The protestors were verbal but peaceful," Fucito said. "No injuries were reported and no further arrests were required."

One of the protesters, Leticia Remauro, slammed the sheriff's office for arresting Presti and shutting down his business.

"This man was arrested for trying to earn a living and pay his taxes. That is insanity," Remauro, a candidate for Staten Island Borough president, told ABC station WABC-TV in New York.

  • In addition to violating Cuomo's executive order, the owners and staff face a litany of other charges, including operating an unlicensed bottle club and unauthorized warehousing of alcohol.

    On Friday, the State Liquor Authority (SLA) board voted to unanimously approve an emergency order suspending the bar's liquor license after an SLA investigator sent to inspect the bar was refused entry, according to officials. Despite being kept out, the SLA investigator documented patrons inside the bar.

    “In order to protect New Yorkers’ health and safety during this public health emergency, the SLA suspended Mac’s Public House’s liquor license, and the Department of Health issued a Section 16 Order after investigators found the premises flagrantly violating COVID-related regulations in the Staten Island Orange Zone," according to a statement the SLA sent to ABC News on Monday.

    The statement added, "These rules are designed to protect New Yorkers during a dangerous increase in COVID cases, and ignoring them just a week after we had to open a surge hospital on Staten Island not only demonstrates an utter disregard for New Yorkers’ health but is clearly illegal."

    SLA officials also said that offering food and alcohol for free is not a legitimate loophole to avoid the restrictions and noted that Cuomo's executive order also prohibits indoor food service, not just sales.

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