Worthy Cause, Wrong Approach

The Pellerito family: “We go through each day just trying our best. What are the new rules? What is right?”

by James A. Bacon

Give Amanda Chase credit for one thing: She knows how to get into the news. Whether the resulting headlines help the Chesterfield state senator win the Republican Party nomination for governor is quite another matter. The latest brouhaha over her refusal to wear a mask in a Harrisonburg restaurant is not likely to help.

After making a campaign stop in New Market over the weekend with rock musician Ted Nugent, Chase visited Vito’s Italian Kitchen in Harrisonburg for a meal. She did not wear a mask. On two separate occasions, according to her Facebook account, employees denied her service, even though she explained that she had an underlying health condition that did not allow her to wear one. Upon providing a letter from her doctor, she was provided service but “not without being harassed and belittled in front of other store patrons.”

Katharine Nye Pellerito, who owns the restaurant with her husband, posted her own version of the encounter on Facebook. Chase got confrontational and threatened to sue, she wrote. “The uncertainty of Covid … as it threatens our ability to maintain our restaurants has been exhausting, to say the least. Last night was tough. We go through each day trying our best What are the new rules? What is right? What does the law expect? Who is going to yell at us for trying to do the right thing today?”

Chase argued that she was standing her ground “because there are thousands of disabled Virginians who are being victimized and harassed because of this Governor’s confusing and ever changing executive orders. … We must fight back against the overreach of Governor Northam! Virginians reach out to me every day asking what they can do to go out in public to do regular activities like shop for groceries, get a hair cut children missing out on sports or work to support their families when wearing a mask is not a viable option for them.”

The candidate also expressed sympathy for small business across the state who have been threatened with losing their business licenses and aggressive fines if they fail to enforce the mask mandate. “Small businesses continue to do their best to piece together policies and practices to keep their businesses open, but the incongruous information they are receiving from the Governor is causing a massive problem.”

Bacon’s bottom line. Here’s my reading of the incident: Chase is highlighting a legitimate issue, but she chose the wrong way to do it.

Unlike the owner of the Red Hen restaurant in Lexington who famously refused to serve Sara Huckabee Sanders, then-press secretary to Donald Trump, the Pelleritos displayed no obvious political animus. They certainly aren’t activists. There is no record in the Virginia Public Access Project donor database of them having made a campaign contributions to any Virginia politician. Chase didn’t accuse them of political bias, and Pellerito expressed none in her Facebook post. As Pellerito said, she and her husband are just doing their best to keep their restaurant open and obey the law.

Had Chase played her cards differently, she could have used the Pelleritos as an illustration of the very problem she is fighting — how Northam’s policies have dragooned restaurant owners and their employees into enforcing an ambiguous emergency order.

How are employees supposed to know that people refusing to wear masks have a medical justification? If people say they have a medical condition, must employees take their word for it, or can they demand proof? Must patrons carry a doctor’s letter with them, as Chase does? How is anyone to know if the letter is legitimate? Letters can be easily forged. No two circumstances are ever the same, so endless questions arise.

Had Chase chosen to be sympathetic rather than confrontational, she might have generated a very different story. She could have portrayed the Pelleritos, a small-business family with four children including new-born twins, as victims of Northam’s policies, suffering needless complications as they try to follow the rules and stay in business. Instead, Chase made her own behavior the story. What an opportunity lost.