Holland restaurant owner to remain in jail for 'selfishly' not following COVID orders

Holland restaurant owner to remain in jail for 'selfishly' not following COVID orders

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Rally held at Holland restaurant after owner arrested for not following COVID orders

More than 200 people protested outside Marlena's Bistro & Pizzeria in Holland on Saturday, March 20, 2021, one day after owner Marlena Pavlos-Hackney was jailed for failing to follow state COVID-19 rules.

The Detroit News, The Detroit News

A 55-year-old Holland restaurant owner operating in defiance of a court-ordered closure and the state's COVID-19 restrictions, including Michigan's mask mandate, will remain in an Ingham County jail for up to 93 days. 

Marlena's Bistro and Pizzeria owner Marlena Pavlos-Hackney is believed to be the first restaurant owner in Michigan to be arrested for non-compliance with COVID-19 orders, according to Attorney General Dana Nessel's office. Others have complied after receiving court orders.

Assistant Attorney General Eileen Whipple told Ingham County Circuit Judge Wanda Stokes earlier this month that the restaurant would not allow inspectors on site and would not comply with social distancing or state mask mandates.

Pavlos-Hackney, arrested shortly before 6 a.m. Friday during a traffic stop in Ottawa County, will remain in jail until the state is assured her restaurant is closed down and she pays $7,500, Ingham County Circuit Judge Rosemarie Aquilina said during a raucous Friday court hearing.

"We’re in the midst of a pandemic," Aquilina said. "You have selfishly not followed the orders. You’ve not followed them for your own financial gain and apparently for the publicity that comes with it.”

Pavlos-Hackney's lawyer, Robert Parker, said the owner was prepared to pay the fine and close the restaurant, but Aquilina said she wanted proof of the closure. The restaurant was boarded up Friday afternoon after shutting at its usual 2 p.m. closing time.

During Friday's hearing, Aquilina also ordered a man attempting to represent Pavlos-Hackney as "assistance of counsel" to be arrested for contempt of court because he allegedly had represented himself as a lawyer when he was not licensed to practice. Richard Martin, who described himself as a constitutional lawyer and is the founder of the Constitutional Law Group, was ordered to serve 93 days in jail.

Aquilina threatened supporters in the courtroom with contempt of court when they made noise during the court hearing. The judge gaveled down Pavlos-Hackney when the restaurant owner tried to interrupt the judge. 

"This isn’t Burger King," Aquilina said. "When the sign changes to Burger King, you can have it your way.”

After the hearing, two supporters of Pavlos-Hackney stood outside the courthouse with bullhorns, calling Aquilina a "tyrant judge."

Pavlos-Hackney was held in contempt of court earlier this month for continuing to operate Marlena's Bistro and Pizzeria after her license was revoked by the state for weeks and months of failing to comply with COVID safety protocol, including masks, social distancing and capacity. 

Pavlos-Hackney was contacted by the state police on March 11 and told to turn herself in by March 18, Nessel's office said.

“This owner has continued to willfully violate the state’s food laws, public health orders and the order of the court — a dangerous act that may have exposed dozens of diners and employees to the virus following the discovery that one of Marlena’s customers tested positive for the virus within two days of eating there,” Nessel said in a statement. 

The Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development suspended the restaurant's food establishment license on Jan. 20, but it has continued to operate since. An administrative law judge upheld the suspension Feb. 11, according to Nessel's office. 

Pavlos-Hackney's supporters said she has been made an example by the state, but argued her actions were legal because of the Oct. 2 Michigan Supreme Court decision overturning Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's executive orders. The high court ruled that Whitmer failed to comply with an existing state law and decided a World War II era law was an unconstitutional grab of legislative power by the governor's office.

COVID-19 regulations have since been issued as epidemic orders under the state Department of Health and Human Services and have not faced any successful court challenges.

Pavlos-Hackney escaped communist Poland to achieve the American dream said Angela Rigas, a friend of the restaurant owner.

"The state of Michigan is oppressing the people and they've become tyrants," Rigas said. "We can operate our businesses as we see fit. The First Amendment gives us the ability to petition grievance against the government, to assemble and freedom of speech. All of these things here have been used against Marlena."

The Michigan Republican Party criticized Nessel's office for arresting the restaurant owner while refusing to investigate COVID-19 nursing home deaths in Michigan. About 35% of all COVID deaths have occurred among nursing home residents and employees.

"Nessel is eager to spend taxpayer-funded resources going after small business owners trying to stave off bankruptcy but refuses to investigate the deaths of thousands of nursing home residents potentially caused by policies implemented by her political-ally Gretchen Whitmer," GOP spokesman Ted Goodman said in a Friday statement.

"It's a massive abuse of power and shows what her priorities are."

But Whipple from the Michigan Attorney General's Office told Stokes that "Marlena’s is not employing even the most basic COVID-19 mitigation measures." 

"Marlena’s has rebuffed repeated attempts by the Allegan County Health Department to work with them to bring the defendant’s establishment into compliance," she said.

Pavlos-Hackney told WOOD-TV Thursday she had a constitutional right to remain open.

"We don't want in this country (a) communist regime who's going to dictate what we can do and what we can't do," Pavlos-Hackney said. "If I have to go to prison or jail, I'm willing to take the fight."

The restaurant owner's state representative also criticized Nessel's decision.

"Marlena simply wants to work to support her family and the families of her employees," said state Rep. Mary Whiteford, R-Casco Township, in a statement.

"She reminds me of my dad, never wanting government handouts. Every one of her customers has chosen to eat in her restaurant. They refuse to let government dictate their lives. Gov. Whitmer must order her agencies to back down."

eleblanc@detroitnews.com