On Dec. 8, NFL football player Dez Bryant of the Baltimore Ravens tested positive for COVID-19, 19 minutes before the Ravens were scheduled to play their game against the Dallas Cowboys. He was on the field, having earlier taken an inconclusive test. Bryant used to play for the Cowboys, so he greeted his former teammates and coaches with hugs.
After he was pulled from the game, Bryant tweeted, “Since I tested positive for Covid before the game do [sic] the game stop or go on? @NFL.” Of course, the game went on. The players thrashed and crashed into each other. They yelled and whooped in each other’s faces. None of them wore a mask.
ESPN’s Kevin Seifert tweeted, “NFL identified no high-risk close contacts, and the game began.” Don’t believe your lying eyes that saw Bryant hug people. Believe the organization that stood to lose quite a lot by canceling the game.
The day after the game, on Dec. 9, Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott said that he was closing dining in restaurants, indoors and outdoors. A high-contact sport such as football, played by millionaire athletes for even richer team owners, supported by television networks, and funded top to bottom with advertising and merchandise cash, has to go on, even if people are exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID-19. But restaurants built with sweat and tears can be swiftly closed without much pushback. They don’t have lobbyists, and they don’t give large donations to politicians. And they are shown again and again they just don’t matter.
It’s been nine long months of these ever-shifting rules, changing metrics, new guidelines. For small-business owners, it’s been a particularly painful moment as they watch big businesses boom and exceptions get made for the rich and famous. There are COVID-19 rules for some, and then there are other rules for the rest of us.
The previous Saturday, comedian Pete Davidson made fun of a Staten Island business that had publicly defied the order from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to serve food and drinks only outdoors. Davidson called them “babies” and joked that he was happy he was no longer what people thought of when asked, “What’s the worst thing about Staten Island?” Davidson said all this from his well-paying job, indoors, at “Saturday Night Live.”
“Saturday Night Live,” it so happens, is filmed in front of a live studio audience — even now. The show skirts state rules against performances and stage shows by simply paying the audience, turning them into “employees.” As the New York Post reported in October, “Current state regulations prohibit media productions from hosting live audiences unless they are made up of paid cast, crew or employees. The audience must be no more than 100 people or 25% of capacity, whichever is lower, and audiences must practice 6 feet of social distance in all directions, the state says. But the brains behind ‘SNL’ came up with the creative solution — compensation — and dispensed the free tickets through a third-party website to ensure an audience of no more than 100.”
And the Health Department is fully aware of this end run around the rules. “SNL has confirmed that they followed the reopening guidance, including selecting audience members through a third-party screening and casting process and compensating them for their time as paid audience members,” Health Department spokesman Jonah Bruno told the New York Post.
The whole charade is risible. An audience is an audience, and maskless performers are maskless performers. The $150 check each audience member receives doesn’t make anything safer; it only succeeds in bending the arbitrary rules imposed by the state. The Health Department isn’t concerned with health, just with the rules being structured in a way that exempts the powerful or influential while suffocating everyone else.
The arbitrariness of such rules is crushing to those who find their businesses in danger of closing because of them. Dani Zoldan, owner of Stand Up New York comedy club in Manhattan, told me, “My blood was boiling watching SNL thinking about all of the comedy clubs that can’t reopen and earn a living while SNL is allowed to have a studio audience. The cast members aren’t even social distancing. So tone deaf to see Pete Davidson on ‘Weekend Update’ make fun of the Staten Island residents for protesting that Mac’s Public House should reopen while he, his cast members, and NBC rake in money during the pandemic.”
Zoldan added: “Two comedy clubs have already closed permanently, and there will be more. I’m all for COVID safety measures, but it should be across-the-board. It’s so infuriating and sad.”
Football is OK, restaurants are not. “Saturday Night Live” is fine, comedy clubs are forbidden. None of it makes sense. It’s not March, when we were still largely guessing.
New York has company in its hypocrisy. After Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti ordered dining in the city, indoor and outdoor, to close, LA restaurant owner Angela Marsden released a soon-to-be-viral video she recorded of a TV show’s film set that had put up a nearly identical outdoor eating space next to her shuttered restaurant. The film set’s dining tables were under a tent in Marsden’s restaurant’s parking lot. Their dining was somehow safe, hers not. The pain in her voice in the video, as she struggles to convey the feeling of having her business destroyed while the Hollywood set can do what they want, is hard to hear. “I am losing everything,” she said. “Look at this. Tell me that this is dangerous, but right next to me, as a slap in my face, that’s safe?”
In April, California included “workers supporting the entertainment industries, studios, and other related establishments, provided they follow covid-19 public health guidance around physical distancing,” in its list of essential businesses. The entertainment industry is financially important to California, but that doesn’t make a dining tent for a film set any less dangerous than a dining tent at an outdoor restaurant next to it.
Mayor Garcetti didn’t address the disgusting double standard when he said, “My heart goes out to Ms. Marsden and the workers at the Pineapple Hill Saloon who have to comply with state and county public health restrictions that close outdoor dining. No one likes these restrictions, but I do support them as our hospital ICU beds fill to capacity and cases have increased by 500%. We must stop this virus before it kills thousands of more Angelenos.”
That last part, as if Marsden’s restaurant is causing the spread, is most poisonous. If Garcetti has evidence that outdoor dining is contributing to the spread, he should share it since it flies in the face of anything we understand about this virus. Eating outside is eating outside, and Mayor Garcetti has to be forced to explain the difference or reopen restaurants now.
Many business owners are risking their livelihoods by complying with these arbitrary restrictions. Others are risking theirs by bravely refusing to do so. Mac’s Public House, the Staten Island bar mocked by Davidson, declared itself an “autonomous zone” and put a note on the door saying, “We refuse to abide by any rules and regulations put forth by the mayor of New York City and governor of New York state.” That didn’t last, of course, and the Sheriff’s Office arrived to shut it down.
Atilis Gym in Bellmawr, N.J., is another business trying to fight the power. Co-owner Ian Smith said recently that their fines had totaled $1.5 million. But that’s small potatoes compared to what it could be. Rudy Klotsman, a franchisee at multiunit Orangetheory Fitness locations in New York, told me it wasn’t as simple as breaking the rules to fight back.
He worries about someone contracting COVID-19 and claiming to have caught it at his business. “My insurance company will deny any and all claims because my government mandated a lockdown and legally, I was supposed to be closed,” he said. “The owners of the company become personally liable. That kind of risk is OK if you have nothing to lose.” But Klotsman has a family and employees to think about and can’t take that kind of chance.
Small-business owners, already pummeled, live in fear of being reported. Chelly Bouferrache, owner of Colette Bakery & Bistro in Lebanon, Oregon, told me her business had “been reported to OSHA for having dine-in and not wearing masks, both of which were lies. It was my business partner eating her breakfast at a table sitting with her husband.” They got off with a warning but always worry more enforcement is coming.
Our path back to normal can’t center on expecting this kind of sacrifice from those with the most to lose. There’s either a deadly virus running rampant and there’s a strategy to combat it or there’s not. Hypocrite politicians do need to be confronted and called out at every opportunity. We can’t leave the business owners to do it alone. They’ve lost enough already.
Karol Markowicz is a New York Post columnist and a Washington Examiner contributing writer.