Outrage Follows Ohio Restaurant Group’s Endorsement of Gov. DeWine

Thousands of restaurants and bars have closed amid Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine’s COVID-19 shutdowns and restrictions. Many restaurant and bar owners across the state are expressing outrage after the Ohio Restaurant Association announced it is endorsing DeWine and Lieutenant Governor Jon Husted for re-election.

“They have betrayed the very businesses they claim to represent,” said Aaron Crater, a professional bartender who founded an advocacy group for the hospitality industry called Ohio Barhop in the summer of 2020.

“Gov. DeWine destroyed our industry, shutting it down without any regard to actual data and science.”

As of March 2022, more than 3,000 Ohio restaurants—or about 10 percent—have closed during the pandemic, according to the association.

Clinging to Life

Crater believes that number is conservative and says that around 4,000 restaurants and bars shuttered for good in 2020 alone. Thousands more, he estimated, are clinging to life because of the heavy restrictions that followed closures.

Crater believes that DeWine is responsible for the struggles because of “his unnecessary overreach.”

The ORA shares a different opinion.

“Mike DeWine is an advocate for Ohio’s business community and has demonstrated an appreciation for the unique challenges that face the restaurant community,” ORA president and CEO John Barker said.

“This has never been truer than over the past two years during the pandemic where he consistently reached out to listen and understand our industry’s complex issues.

“Governor DeWine and Lieutenant Governor Husted spent countless hours with the ORA and our restaurant, foodservice, and hospitality industry leaders, and we are thankful for their thoughtful approach,” Barker added.

“The governor’s Restaurant Advisory Group developed the roadmap to safely reopen restaurants in Ohio in May of 2020. We partnered on the Ohio Restaurant Promise for guests and employees, and the state provided a grant program with more than $200 million in COVID relief for impacted operators.

“These steps and more enabled Ohio to fare significantly better than other states that suffered from overreach on mandates and restrictions, which devastated their hospitality communities,” Barker said. “It is critical to our members that Ohio’s leaders are balanced and pro-business, pro-economic growth, and pro-job creator, especially now as our economy continues to rebound and we position restaurants to thrive again. Because of this, DeWine and Husted have earned our endorsement in the 2022 election.”

Shutdown Was Devastating

On March 15, 2020, DeWine announced that the Ohio Department of Health issued a Director’s Order to close all Ohio bars and restaurants to in-house patrons, effective that evening at 9 o’clock.

The measure limited restaurants with take-out and delivery only.

Tina Ramsey has owned O’Conner’s Irish Pub in Springfield for 14 years. The shutdown was “devastating” to Ramsey as it happened less than 48 hours before her pub’s busiest time of the year, St. Patrick’s Day.

“I had spent $17,000 on tents, food, liquor, beer, and staffing. We ended up giving away most of the food,” Ramsey said. “I thought I was going to lose everything I worked so hard for. Even today, nothing is the same. There is an uncertainty from day to day. I don’t feel secure about the stability of operating the business, from staffing to food pricing.

Ramsey said she was so stunned that the ORA endorsed DeWine that she cried.

“I am in shock. I used to be a member, but they don’t show any concern for small restaurants,” Ramsey added. “Because of Gov. DeWine’s response to COVID, thousands upon thousands of people’s lives were ruined, and the ORA thinks he is the person who should lead our state.

“How could any restaurant owner not be angry and hurt about this?”

The ORA’s political action committee contributed more than $13,000 to DeWine’s 2018 gubernatorial campaign, state filings show. Lobby groups frequently make campaign contributions to political candidates.

It is puzzling for many Ohioans that an organization that represents the industry that arguably is the most impacted by COVID-19 mandates would support the governor who authorized those measures.

U.S. Rep. Candidate Jonah Schulz
Jonah Schulz, who is running in the GOP primary in Ohio’s 7th District Congressional race, says the ORA’s decision to support DeWine raises questions about the legitimacy of endorsements. (Courtesy of Jonah Schulz)

Jonah Schulz, who is running in the GOP primary in Ohio’s 7th District Congressional race, says the ORA’s decision to support DeWine raises questions about the legitimacy of endorsements.

“Many of these endorsements are nothing more than special interest groups masquerading as advocacy groups,” Schulz said. “When I decided to run for Congress, the ORA was one of the first groups I contacted. I figured they would be outraged about what DeWine has done to their industry, and I am a liberty-minded candidate,” Schulz added.

“They were not interested in what I had to say and told me they are taking a ‘let’s see what happens’ approach. Well, I guess we are seeing what happened.

“They showed they don’t support the best interests of an industry they claim to represent—and industry that has been decimated by the candidate they want to stay in power for four more years.”

Crater calls the ORA’s reasoning for endorsing DeWine “hypocritical.”

He pointed out that DeWine was one of the first governors in the United States to close restaurants and bars on March 15, 2020.

“When he allowed them to re-open that May, the restrictions put on them were so onerous and burdensome that many collapsed very quickly, and it made it nearly impossible for them to turn any profit, if they were lucky enough to stay out of the red at all,” Crater said in a written statement.

“Business owners were facing severe weekly and monthly losses. Many took out second mortgages and/or drained their retirement accounts to stay afloat and keep their staff employed. Some lost everything that they had worked for their entire lives.

“Immediately after allowing these struggling businesses to reopen, he threatened them with severe fines and punishments if the businesses did not act as policing agents for the state to enforce his orders, sending out the Ohio Investigative Unit to cite ‘non-compliant’ businesses, for which they had to appear before the Ohio Liquor Control Commission for adjudication of those cases—committing a complete end-run around our legislature and judiciary by having the executive branch create mandates, enforce them, and adjudicate them.”

Treated Like an ‘Outlaw’

J.J. Sauber owns Sauber’s Stumble Inn, which is located in the village of Bascom in northwest Ohio.

DeWine allowed restaurants and bars to re-open in May 2020, a move that encouraged Sauber, who said his restaurant and bar could only generate sales from carry out orders during the in-house dining closure mandate.

“The first night we re-opened, I was at home and got a call from one of our employees who said, ‘Some lady from the state is shutting us down,’” Sauber said.

“When I walked in, I saw three women, and they said they were with the Ohio Investigative Unit. They were driving by, saw our door open, and decided to stop in.”

Sauber expected to see uniformed officers with clearly displayed IDs. Instead, the women were in plain clothes and their badges were not clearly displayed, Sauber said.

“I introduced myself and said I am the owner. One of them said she needs to see my ID,” Sauber explained. “I told her, ‘I don’t know who you are” and asked her to show her ID.”

The officers said they felt threatened, Sauber said and called the sheriff’s office, which dispatched a deputy.

“He said he rushed over because he thought there was a brawl. I said, ‘No, I just refused to give them my ID because I didn’t know if they are who they say they are,’” Sauber said.

The officers finally showed their badges, and Sauber provided his ID. The establishment was cited by the OIU, and Sauber was eventually convicted of a misdemeanor for interfering with an investigation.

“Initially, I was offered 90 days in jail, a $2,000 fine, and two years of probation,” Sauber said. “When the case was settled, I spent $6,300 out of my own pocket on attorney’s fees and ended up with two years of probation.

“There were four pre-trial meetings. They were bound and determined to put me in jail for not showing my ID,” Sauber said. “It’s one of many examples of how DeWine’s mandates led to financial problems and unnecessary stress from harassment.

“The bar business, in general, is tough. We are in a small town, which makes it even more difficult,” Sauber said. “They treated me like I was an outlaw.”

Ohio Barhop Founder Aaron Crater
Ohio Barhop founder Aaron Crater believes that the Ohio Restaurant Association’s endorsement of Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine is “a betrayal” to restaurant and bar owners. (Image from The Ohio Channel)

The statewide mask mandate that DeWine implemented on July 23, 2020, created a further strain for restaurants and bars, Crater believes. In Ohio, COVID-19 cases escalated after the mask mandate started, and mask-wearing compliance was at its highest. DeWine announced a 10 p.m. curfew on alcohol sales on July 31, 2020.

“The mask mandate required all businesses to force patrons and employees to wear a mask indoors, unless they were seated at a bar or table, because we were all safe from COVID as long as we were seated,” Crater explained.

“He continued to hammer the industry by placing the curfew for alcohol sales on all businesses that had a liquor permit, as if Ohioans were magically in grave danger of contracting COVID-19 if they were in a bar or restaurant past 10 p.m.

“This killed the most profitable hours for many of these businesses that were drowning in debt already,” Crater said.

On November 19, 2020, DeWine instituted a 10 p.m. curfew for most businesses. Two days before he made that announcement, DeWine’s medical advisory team told Ohioans in a press conference that the highest spread of COVID-19 occurred at private gatherings, not from restaurants and bars.

The ORA published a study on December 28, 2020, showing that only restaurants and bars accounted for 1.4 percent of COVID-19 cases while household gatherings composed nearly 74 percent of the cases.

“Yet they (the ORA) remained silent on DeWine’s overreach,” Crater said.

DeWine extended the statewide curfew on January 21, 2021, though evidence continued to show that few COVID-19 cases originated from restaurants and bars.

On Feb. 11, 2021, DeWine announced that the curfew would end, and in June 2021, he lifted statewide COVID-19 mandates.

The decision was made after the state legislature passed Senate Bill 22, which prevents the Ohio Department of Health from issuing any kind of stay-at-home order like what DeWine initiated in the early weeks of the COVID-19 crisis.

The law also allows state legislators to vote down health orders or emergency declarations without requiring the governor’s authorization.

Masks Not Required

Shonna Bland, who owns Top Notch Diner in Cortland, has steadfastly refused to make customers wear masks.

More than 40 complaints were sent to the Trumbull County Health Department from people unhappy that some diner customers were not wearing facial coverings.

Bland accurately said at the time that “scientific data doesn’t back what they want us to do” and she posted a sign on the diner’s door that announced she “will not force any masks/facial coverings.”

Bland found her business in the news when DeWine learned that his mask mandate was being ignored.

“I don’t know why anybody …” DeWine said before pausing when he was asked about Top Notch Diner during an appearance at the Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport in October 2020.

“I just shake my head, that’s all. That’s all I can say. I just shake my head. Let me just shake my head, and I don’t have to say anything.”

When she heard that the ORA voted to endorse DeWine for re-election, Bland said it was like “getting slapped in the face.”

“We had to lay off most of our staff, I worked 80 hours a week along with my sister just to pay the bills,” Bland said. “I am no longer giving money to the ORA or the Ohio Republican Party. They don’t care about small independent business owners.”

Some restaurant owners don’t place the blame for their struggles on DeWine.

Sokolowski’s University Inn was Cleveland’s oldest family-owned restaurant until it closed its doors after 97 years in late 2020. Established in 1923, it was operated by third-generation owners and siblings, Mike, Mary, and Bernie Sokolowski.

Speaking to The Epoch Times on March 24, Mike Sokolowski said that University is up for sale and will not re-open under the family.

University Inn
Sokolowski’s University Inn is a longtime family-owned restaurant that has shut its doors since the COVID-19 crisis started. (Photo by Mike Sakal)

“We just could not survive with all the regulations put in place during COVID,” he explained. “It was a very strange chain of events that happened when COVID started. There were shutdowns, people died and places closed. We had been wanting to move toward selling so we could retire. This COVID thing sped up what we wanted to do by about five years.”

Speaking about the ORA’s endorsement of DeWine for re-election, Mike Sokolowski added about his mandatory two-week shutdown of restaurants at the beginning of the pandemic:

“I’m never going to blame any one politician for being a part of the hurting of any businesses,” Sokolowski said. “They’re all crazy. The shutdown probably did help get things under control and help keep people safe. These are weird times we’re living in.”

Two Sides To Every Story

The Balaton, a Hungarian restaurant in Cleveland, also closed amid the COVID-19 crisis. Owner Krisztina Ponti told The Epoch Times on March 24 that she and her husband, George, have picked out a few locations to re-open the restaurant on the east side of Cleveland, hopefully by the summer, she said.

Although they have not decided on a final location, yet, the places they are considering are the east Cleveland suburbs of Beachwood, Mayfield, or Solon.

“We’re getting excited about re-opening in a new spot,” Ponti said. We look forward to continuing the business.”

As for the ORA endorsing DeWine,

“There are two sides or two angles to every story,” she said, not elaborating. “We have our own thoughts about what is going on.”

Given the Balaton’s customer base which mostly includes older couples, the restaurant struggled during the first wave of Covid as they provided take-out only.

Never fully recovering, the restaurant announced in late 2021 that December would be its last month of dine-in. Krisztina currently is in Budapest learning some new recipes for the restaurant.

In about two weeks, she said she is going to the Hungary-Ukraine border to donate hygiene items, food, and clothing to the refugees coming into Hungary.

So far, there have been about 500,000 Ukrainian refugees come into Hungary, Ponti said.

Many restaurants and bars still open continue to struggle with staffing issues, even though unemployment compensation has long ended.

“Every time the government gets involved there are unintended consequences. One of those is that many people who once worked in the restaurant and bar industry have left to take jobs in other fields, whether it be Amazon or something else, and they are not returning to the service industry,” Crater said.

“Even though the mandates are lifted, those actions have a lingering impact that continues to cripple the industry.”

Crater said he is exploring the creation of a nonprofit that would represent independent restaurants and bars in Ohio.

“We would represent small businesses in our industry that have been completely ignored,” Crater said.

“The ORA is about big business and big government, and that is not conducive to the health and vitality of small restaurants and bars.”

Michael Sakal contributed to this report.

Jeff Louderback


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