The Erie County Health Department on Friday shut down a tavern in Buffalo and another in Clarence for violating the state's restrictions on how bars and restaurants can operate during the Covid-19 outbreak.
Health Department employees and Erie County sheriff's deputies issued commissioner close orders to the Swannie House, 170 Ohio St., and A.J.'s Clarence Hollow, 10250 Main St., the department announced early Saturday afternoon.
The department accused the two establishments of violating a state executive order, which took effect March 22, that allows restaurants and bars to remain open only for take-out and delivery orders.
A statement from the department didn't detail exactly what happened at the two taverns that led to their closing. Spokeswoman Kara Kane said the employees were following up on complaints from the public and the closings are temporary but don't have an end date.
Al Toralti, an owner of A.J.'s Clarence Hollow, said he takes responsibility for what happened Friday night but said he didn't intentionally set out to violate the state order.
Toralti said he was open all week for takeout orders and hadn't done more than a couple hundred dollars of business.
So he had a minimal staff on for Friday and he said he wasn't prepared when his phone line blew up with orders for fish fries and other meals starting around 5 p.m.
The business wasn't able to keep up with the volume of orders and customers ended up having to wait around for their food, he said.
"It was too much for what I could handle," Toralti said.
Some had gotten drinks to go – which are permitted under the state order – and they ended up standing or sitting near the bar with them until their food was ready to carry out. Since Clarence is a small town, and customers know each other, they ended up taking the opportunity to chat.
Someone saw this and called in a complaint to the Health Department, Toralti said, and sanitarians showed up sometime before 8 p.m. to shut him down.
"It was definitely my fault," Toralti said. "I basically just lost control."
The Health Department said its Division of Environmental Health will report the enforcement actions to the state Liquor Authority for additional potential punishment.
“Bar and restaurant owners have to take this new reality seriously,” Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz said in a statement. “These regulations are in place for a deadly serious reason, and bars and restaurants that are open in violation of the law are putting their customers and their employees at risk. This is unacceptable and we will shut you down.”
“We have seen generally good compliance from Erie County restaurants and bars on the PAUSE orders, with restaurants and their patrons understanding the need to avoid congregating in a closed space, and to wait in their cars or outside for their take-out purchases,” added Dr. Gale Burstein, the county's health commissioner.