Cuban Pete’s Restaurant and Tapas was padlocked on Monday morning for repeatedly breaking COVID-19 capacity regulations during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Court and police records show that the restaurant at 428 Bloomfield Ave. received seven warnings, and three citations, between June 23 and Oct. 4 for violating state executive orders on indoor dining.
On Oct. 9, owner Dominick Restaino was issued a shutdown order from state health authorities. Montclair police made three subsequent visits between Oct. 10-12 to determine if the restaurant was in compliance with the closure order. Each time, the restaurant was fully open and operational, according to court documents.
On Monday morning, Oct. 26, county officials and police arrived at the restaurant and put padlocks and chains on its gates after a Mercer County Superior Court judge ordered the restaurant to be locked down. That county is issuing orders for the New Jersey Department of Health, which oversees restaurant health violations during the pandemic.
The Essex County Prosecutor’s Office, acting on behalf of the state, executed the lockdown order along with the Montclair Police Department and the Essex County Sheriff’s Office, said Katherine Carter, spokesperson for the prosecutor’s office.
The state Attorney General’s Office is prosecuting the matter, with Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli and the New Jersey Department of Health named as plaintiffs.
“The overwhelming majority of New Jerseyans throughout this State have shown a remarkable commitment to the public welfare by abiding by the State’s Executive Orders and following required social distancing protocols. Cuban Pete’s Restaurant, however, has failed to meet that same level of commitment, and has – by its owner’s own admission – continued to provide indoor dining service in violation of these heightened safety standards,” said a legal brief presented by the Office of the Attorney General. “Defendant continues to fill his restaurant to capacity without regard for the risk to public health and in the face of multiple criminal summonses, and the department’s explicit order to cease doing so.”
The matter will be heard in court in Trenton on Nov. 19, Carter said.
Montclair police officials did not return calls seeking comment.
Citations and warnings
Court documents from Mercer County, including 10 Montclair police reports, show that Cuban Pete’s has received three citations, and seven warnings, between June 23 and Oct. 4, either for allowing indoor dining while it was still prohibited, or for violating the 25 percent indoor capacity rule.
The three citations were issued on Aug. 7, Aug. 23 and Oct. 4. The first two citations were issued for allowing indoor dining while the ban on indoor dining was still in effect. The third citation was issued when the restaurant was found to have its indoor dining areas filed beyond the 25-percent capacity limit.
On June 23, police were called to the restaurant and found a group dining indoors, and Restaino told police they were members of his family having a private party. Police also saw people coming in, without masks, to pick up food or use the restroom, and tables were improperly spaced apart.
On July 27, police were again called and discovered several large groups of people dining inside the restaurant. Restaino again told police it was his family.
On Oct. 9, police and state health officials arrived at Cuban Pete’s with a shutdown order issued by the state Department of Health.
Three days earlier, Restaino told a news outlet that he was not going to comply with seating capacity regulations. However, on Oct. 9 Restaino agreed to comply with the orders going forward. He contended that authorities said they would not tell him to close, as long as he agreed to comply with the executive rules.
According to the court documents, however, the restaurant was not allowed to remain open past Oct. 9.
But on Oct. 26 at 5:20 a.m. law enforcement visited the restaurant and locked it down.
Restaino insists he thought he had been in compliance. “There were no warnings, nothing.”
Restaino said he intends to plead not guilty.
Cuban Pete’s has a total indoor capacity of 292 people in its five dining rooms, which could accommodate 73 indoors under current restrictions. The outdoor tables can accommodate another 102 people, according to Restaino.
On Oct. 10, Restaino told Montclair Local that he had been pushed to allow more diners in the restaurant due to financial losses incurred during the pandemic and that he was two months behind in payments to the restaurant’s vendors.
Under state law, violation of the state’s emergency orders is a disorderly persons offense, carrying a possible fine of up to $1,000 and a potential jail sentence of up to six months.
The New Jersey Restaurant and Hospitality Association estimates that 30 percent of New Jersey restaurants may have to close because of financial complications due to the pandemic.
“It’s very sad about how many lives have been lost, and how many businesses are going under, due to the virus,” Restaino said.