‘Business is booming': Restaurant owner defies COVID orders, and flourishes
Owner recently won key court victory against state, vows to continue fighting.
Matt Strickland didn't ask for this fight.
The Army veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan launched his artisanal sandwich outfit, Gourmeltz, out of a food truck in 2016. Two years later, he transitioned to a brick-and-mortar storefront on the outskirts of Fredericksburg, Va., an exurb of Washington DC. He and his wife, Marie, run the combination restaurant and bar; among their numerous employees are several of their children.
Like many restaurateurs, the Stricklands shut down in the early months of 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic spread. Strickland said he attempted to do carryout-only but the restaurant was unable to generate enough income to maintain operations. In June, he said, he opened up his storefront again under Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam's reopening guidelines, among which were numerous dining regulations and capacity limits.
"We followed all the governor's mandates when the COVID stuff first happened," Strickland said, "because I didn't know what COVID was about just like anybody else." After reopening several months into the pandemic, however, he said the new spate of restaurant regulations "were about something else other than our health and safety" because "they just made no sense."
"Nobody could sit at a bar, but you could put a table up next to the bar and sit," he said. "You had to wear a mask just to walk in but when you sit down, you can take it off. [The] regulations made no common sense."
The state was "starting to strip away the constitutional rights and freedoms of myself and my customers," he said. "And I wasn't going to be part of that."
Strickland said he re-opened in June without following any orders from the governor's office. "I allowed my customers to make their own decisions as far as if they're comfortable wearing a mask or not comfortable sitting at a bar or not," he said.
Shortly thereafter, Strickland said, he began receiving messages from state health officials regarding customer complaints over his defiance of Northam's orders. Yet the state never took any action, Strickland claimed, until President Joe Biden, shortly after taking office, signed a workplace health and safety executive order that directed federal officials in part to "launch a national program to focus OSHA enforcement efforts" on businesses violating COVID mandates.
Shortly thereafter, Strickland said, federal and local health inspectors paid him a visit. "They told me, 'Hey, listen, if you continue to let people sit at your bar, you don't make everybody wear a mask, then we'll come and suspend your health department license.'"
"And I said, 'Make it make sense to me why somebody can't sit at a bar...How's it any different than sitting down at a table and taking your mask off and interacting with a waiter or waitress?' And he couldn't give me an explanation that made any sense."
Strickland refused to follow those dictates, after which the state suspended his health license. He continued operating his business as normal, however, leading the state to attempt a court-ordered injunction to shut Gourmeltz down.
A Spotsylvania County court denied that request last week, claiming that there was "no evidence" to support the state's claims of harm and that, per a local health official, there were "no known cases of COVID-19" traced back to Strickland's restaurant.
The case will soon go to full trial, with Strickland arguing that Northam's orders are illegal violations of his constitutional rights. The attorney general's office, meanwhile, said it was preparing for the eventual court hearing.
"We will review the decision with the Department of Health and take any appropriate next steps," a spokeswoman from Attorney General Mark Herring's office said. The state health department did not respond to requests for comment for this report.
Strickland, meanwhile, acknowledged his restaurant has "a long fight ahead of us," but that he has retained a team of lawyers to argue his case, financed in part by the nonprofit group Liberty Guard.
"One thing I can tell you is that nothing's going to change here at Gourmeltz," he said. "We're always going to be open. We're going to fight for our rights and our freedoms as long as we have to," and "everybody will be welcome to come in here and enjoy their rights and freedoms as God intended."
Amid still-difficult economic times, of course, as well as the negative accusations from state officials, one question remains: How's business?
"Business is absolutely booming," Strickland said. "The response and the support and the love that people have been showing since they found out about what we're doing has been amazing."
"I had no sense of which way it was going to go," he added. "I just knew it was something I had to do. It shows the mentality of the people and shows what the people want."