First the business eschewed California’s mask mandate and urged customers to “Leave the mask, take the cannoli,” an homage to the classic 1972 mafia movie, “The Godfather.” Then it erected a billboard with that message while the state’s Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control warned it was out of compliance with health guidelines.
Now owner Tony Roman appears as recalcitrant as ever, even as people feud on the restaurant’s Facebook page and some business experts say the publicity stunt may backfire. On Tuesday, Basilico’s shared a “Declaration and Pledge of Defiance” again vaccine requirements and other measures meant to frustrate the virus’s spread as the delta variant lends new urgency to the United States’ stalled vaccination campaign. California is averaging nearly 7,000 infections per day, up from 870 in mid-June, according to data tracked by The Washington Post.
The restaurant’s rebellious stance stands in contrast with the tactics of a wave of employers, previously skeptical of mandates, who have begun to require the immunizations. It also poses a counterexample to bars and restaurants across the country that have recently made proof of immunization a requirement for entry.
Basilico’s Facebook page on Tuesday was a battleground for commenters who both praised and excoriated the restaurant’s insubordination.
“Please, remember when you can’t afford to keep your business open- THIS IS WHY!” one person wrote. “Do not blame the lockdowns. You chose this! Best of luck!”
“Well done,” another person said. “If I was local I’d eat there as much as possible. Keep up the great work and don’t get discouraged by all the haters.”
Basilico’s has been undeterred by investigations from two state agencies. The Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control began an administrative procedure against the restaurant after it received a complaint in July 2020 alleging violations of health orders. A spokesman for the department, John Carr, did not elaborate on the contents of the complaint.
In June, the state Division of Occupational Safety and Health levied more than $152,000 in fines against the restaurant for allegedly breaching covid-19 prevention policies. Basilico’s has neither paid the penalties nor appealed the decision, a spokesperson for the agency said Tuesday.
No one answered the phone at Basilico’s when a reporter called Tuesday, and the voice mail was full. But Roman told the Los Angeles Times, which was first to report on the vaccination policy, that he was attempting to fight what he views as the government’s harmful response to the pandemic.
“With warning signs of another impending lockdown, and many business owners again emboldening those who I refer to as ‘the lockdown tiny tyrants’ — this time by imposing proof-of-vaccination policies — we chose to fire another missile of defiance to further make our point in defense of American liberty and freedom,” Roman wrote to the Times.
On Wednesday, he told CNN host Chris Cuomo that his restaurant’s policy was a “pro-freedom” stand, not an anti-vaccine stand.
“So what’s next then?” Roman said. “Are we all going to lock ourselves in our homes whenever there’s, what, a flu outbreak or there’s an outbreak of a cold, a common cold? Are we going to lock ourselves inside our homes and wear a moon suit? I mean, where does it end?”
Stacy Wood, a marketing professor at North Carolina State University, said businesses are smart to be wary of taking an anti-vaccine stance. Basilico’s may drum up support from ardently anti-vaccine patrons, she said, but those people can only eat out so often. Even in politically conservative Orange County, Wood said the restaurant’s tactic risks alienating people who feel ambivalent about vaccine politics and those who agree with Basilico’s position in theory but have still gotten their shots.
Wood said bars and restaurants actually have a compelling interest in requiring customers to be vaccinated. Public-facing businesses need to keep their staff members healthy to continue earning a profit, especially amid a labor shortage in the service industry.
Whether restaurants require or dissuade vaccination is unlikely to completely overhaul customers’ attitudes toward vaccination, Wood said, but it will still make an impact.
“It’s not going to be the one thing that persuades,” she said, “but it will be evidence that people use.”