Bar declares itself 'autonomous zone' to skirt COVID-19 restrictions

Bucking government-imposed COVID-19 restrictions, the owners of a bar in a virus hot spot of New York City said they've declared their watering hole an "autonomous zone" offering food and booze on the house, but asking visitors for tips and telling authorities they're not welcome.

After being stripped of their liquor license and fined $1,000 a day by the New York City Sheriff's Office for flouting rules enacted to blunt an alarming second wave of the deadly virus, Keith McAlarney and Danny Presti, the owners of Mac's Public House in the city's Staten Island borough, believe their self-proclamation makes them immune from Gov. Andrew Cuomo's executive order.

"We're still doing things in a safe way. We're still open," Presti said in a YouTube video briefing patrons on the tavern's status.

Mac's Public House is located in an area deemed by Cuomo to be a virus-risky "orange zone" after the Staten Island positive-testing 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.

Reached by phone on Monday morning by ABC News, McAlarney said that he and his partner had no comment.

In the YouTube video he posted on Friday, Presti said he and McAlarney have no intention of abiding by the rules or paying fines levied against them. They've also removed cease-and-desist notices slapped on their windows by the state Health Department.

The proprietors, who opened their bar a year ago after conducting major renovations on the space, have also painted an orange square on the sidewalk outside the tavern's door that includes the words "autonomous zone," a phrase similar to the one used by activists in Seattle who established a law enforcement-free area during recent protests over police brutality.

"We refuse to abide by any rules and regulations put forth by the Mayor of NYC and the Governor of NY State," reads a sign posted in the bar's front window.

The owners continued to invite patrons inside over the weekend to imbibe and eat, ABC's New York station WABC-TV and other news media outlets reported.

"It doesn't seem like we can do business," Presti said in the video. "So here's what we're going to do for everybody: We're going to give away everything for free. So now you can come to Mac's Public House, and you can eat for free and you can drink for free. We just ask that you do make a donation toward us so that we can still pay our bills."

On Friday, the State Liquor Authority (SLA) board voted unanimously on 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," a statement the SLA sent to ABC News on Monday reads.

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. The State is working with the NYPD and NYC Sheriff's office to monitor compliance."

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.

During his daily press briefing on Monday, Cuomo said people bragging about defying government rules have a distorted view of what it means to be tough.

"You think that's tough? No," Cuomo said without mentioning Mac's Public House. "What's tough is ... working in an emergency room, working in a field hospital, working with people who have COVID. That shows guts and character, in my opinion. And what shows character is not creating the case for a nurse or a doctor, or an ambulance driver to have to deal with."

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