Niles restaurant owner served cease and desist after defying MDHHS order

NILES — Pam Sebasty feels like she is between the Indiana state line and a hard place.

As owner of Harvest Café, located at the southern end of Niles Township just north of the Indiana state line, Sebasty said the shutdown of the restaurant’s indoor dining has made it difficult for her to care for her employees and keep her business afloat.

On Saturday, Sebasty reopened her restaurant for dine-in service in defiance of a Michigan Department Health and Human Services order that banned dine-in service until at least Dec. 20 due to COVID-19 precautions.

Within days of reopening for indoor dining, Sebasty was served a cease and desist letter, in person, from the Berrien County Health Department. The letter described the violation of the MDHHS order as a “imminent and substantial danger to public health.”

Sebasty said it has been challenging trying to make it work on carryout orders alone.

“We’re not known for carryout like a pizza place,” Sebasty said. “We’re known as a dine-in restaurant. Most of our carry-out is leftovers.”

Harvest Café has been open for three years, and Sebasty has been a solo owner of the restaurant for the past two.

“Prior to this [most recent] shutdown, we were back to our pre-COVID-19 [sales] numbers,” she said. “It was literally the week before the shutdown. We were back at a breakeven week.”

Even as Sebasty defied the MDHHS orders to reopen, she said she was keeping the dining area at 50 percent capacity, keeping masks on and increased cleaning protocols.

“We were doing everything in our power to keep everybody safe,” she said. “When we made the decision, despite the orders, it honestly wasn’t meant to be an ‘in your face,’ social justice warrior action. We put it out on Facebook because we wanted people to know. We know how much this place means to some, and how much they mean to us.”

Since posting about reopening on social media, Sebasty has struggled with the backlash she has received.

“People say that I am being selfish,” Sebasty said. “I haven’t taken a paycheck since March. I’m just trying to keep my employees employed. The truth is, those employees, I love like family. Some of them are my family.”

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Sebasty has tried not to take out loans as a means to stay open. She said the Paycheck Protection Program was depleted before she made it to the underwriting process.

Sebasty said she tried to get in line online for the Pure Michigan Small Business Relief Initiative Tuesday morning, which opened at 9 a.m.

“One of the other businesses [in the area] made it on the list, and was number 4,700 in line,” she said. “It was 9:01 a.m. when he signed on. At that point, I was not going to be able to get it. When you try for these grants, they’re gone within a few minutes.”

Despite saying she wanted to reopen indoor dining to help take care of her employees, Sebasty moved to go back to carry-out only once the health department warned her law enforcement could get involved if she did not comply with state orders.

Moving forward, Sebasty has extended the hours for Harvest Café to 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. to include carry-out for dinner Monday through Friday. The restaurant currently has hours listed from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.

Sebasty is seeking legal counsel to see if there is anything she can do to keep Harvest Café open, and her employees employed, as she waits to find out if the current epidemic order will again be extended past Dec. 20.

Sebasty said she knows those on the front lines, fighting the COVID-19 virus in hospitals have a different viewpoint.

“It stinks all the way around,” she said. “There’s no easy answer. For us, there’s no answer right now because half a mile down the road [in Indiana] they’re open at 50 percent capacity.”

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