SOUTH PARIS — A judge Monday found a Bethel restaurant in contempt of a court order to close its doors and imposed a daily fine of $5,000 starting Tuesday if it continues to remain open.
Oxford County Superior Court Justice Thomas McKeon told the co-owners of Sunday River Brewing Co. restaurant that they had failed to adhere to his temporary restraining order from October aimed at bringing the restaurant into compliance with Gov. Janet Mills’ emergency order in response to the coronavirus pandemic. That led to McKeon’s Nov. 12 order to cease operations.
An attorney for the owners, brothers Rick and Ron Savage, said Monday night they plan to comply with the judge’s order and not open their doors until their license is no longer under suspension.
The Department of Health and Human Services had sought the order from the court, claiming the restaurant had not followed health guidelines, including mask wearing. Monday’s hearing was held to determine whether the restaurant was in contempt of the Nov. 12 order.
A hearing is planned for next month for McKeon to decide whether that order should be continued beyond the 30-day license suspension period.
At Monday’s hearing, co-owner Rick Savage appeared by videoconference at the office of his attorney, Ted Dilworth, wearing a face mask. Ron Savage also was masked in the same room.
Rick Savage told the judge he hasn’t worked at the restaurant, at 29 Sunday River Road, since April. He’s been in the restaurant only occasionally since last month to check email and have a drink at the bar, where he didn’t wear a mask, he said.
He said he has difficulty wearing a mask, but wore one when scheduled to meet with state inspectors at the restaurant recently.
Asked by Assistant Attorney General Margaret Machaiek on cross-examination if he had been aware that the court had issued an order to prohibit the restaurant from operating without a license, Savage said, “Yes.”
“And has the establishment continued to operate?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said.
“Does the establishment have an active license right now?”
“No,” he said.
Savage said he has 65 full-time employees at the restaurant. He and his brother had made the decision to continue to stay open despite accruing fines at $600 per day for being in noncompliance with the Nov. 12 court order.
This isn’t the first time the restaurant was ordered to close. In May, a judge shut down the restaurant for failing to comply with state health mandates. It was later allowed to reopen, but has been cited by the state several times since for health violations.
A DHHS worker testified Monday that the fines against the restaurant to date had totaled more than $30,000.
Ron Savage testified Monday that the business hadn’t paid those fines because it plans to challenge them in court and prevail.
“We feel we’re being singled out because (Rick) called the governor out on national TV and we’re really the only ones in the state of Maine that are in court right now through the state,” he told the judge.
“We don’t feel the judge has got fair and accurate information at this point,” he said.
He said he’s visited other restaurants that are in noncompliance, but with no state enforcement.
“I feel that we’re being targeted and I feel when it comes out in the end of it, we’re going to win in court,” Ron Savage said.
“We’re fighting for our life, for our employees and us,” he added.
“The state’s trying to make us out to be bad people, we’re not,” he said.
When the governor ordered Maine restaurants closed in March, Savage said his restaurant complied, but kept his workers employed and cooked more than 11,000 meals for the community at no charge.
He said the mandate to wear masks in public is unconstitutional, a claim he plans to pursue in court.
“We opened our business in defiance and we have been nothing but harassed from the state since,” Ron Savage said.
Dilworth proposed allowing the restaurant to stay open if Rick Savage were to stay away for the next two months.
DHHS worker Lisa Silva testified Monday that roughly 50 establishments in Maine have been cited for violating the governor’s COVID-19 health mandates. The department has issued 17 temporary suspensions, including the Savages’ restaurant, she said.
Dilworth asked whether she had communicated with the governor’s office about actions taken against the Bethel restaurant. She said she hadn’t.
In October, McKeon issued an injunction against the company, placing restrictions on its operations, but stopped short of closing the restaurant.
One of the conditions ordered last month by the judge was to allow inspections by state workers.
According to court documents filed last week, an inspector from the Maine Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery visited the restaurant on Nov. 5 and 6 and observed “various” violations, including Savage “not wearing a mask at any point while at the restaurant.” The inspector “also observed that certain staff members were either not wearing a mask, or wearing a mask not properly situated on their nose.”
Both brothers had signed court affidavits in October committing to wearing masks while at the restaurant, according to McKeon’s order.
McKeon said Monday that the brothers will have a chance at next month’s hearing to provide more detail about whether the restaurant has met the state’s mandates in a bid to have its license reinstated.