Kitchen Worker Not Wearing A Mask Properly? The Nuisance COVID Fines That Have Crushed Small Businesses

A Somerville Police Officer issues a summons to a pedestrian by Highland Ave in Somerville, MA on April 29, 2020. (Photo by David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

One of the gaping holes in US public policy knowledge at the moment is the continued poor understanding of how COVID-related rules have been enforced around the country over the past year and a half. Last month I published an article documenting how police issued thousands of summonses in Newark, NJ for offenses including “Standing outside enjoying the weather” and “Failure to wear a mask.” But that was just a drop in the bucket; it was only one city, and encompassed a period of less than two months in 2020. 

So here’s another illustrative citation that I was able to obtain, this time from Massachusetts. Again, it’s just one in a sea of COVID-related violations. But it’s emblematic of the kind of punitive government intervention that ordinary people have been subjected to since the onset of the pandemic — and about which there has been relatively little public debate. 

On February 8, 2021 a violation was issued to the proprietors of Ball Square Cafe in Somerville, MA. The reason stated for the $300 fine was that a “kitchen employee was observed... not wearing mask properly.” So a municipal official was apparently going around examining the exact positioning of face masks on kitchen workers.

Owner Mike Moccia was not present at the restaurant that day: his mother’s funeral was also on February 8. (She is actually named on the citation because Moccia’s father, who operated Victor’s Deli for 37 years, still owns the building where the restaurant is housed.)

“I’m kind of happy I wasn’t here that day, because it wouldn’t have been fun for him,” Moccia told me of the city employee who came to carry out the inspection. “He wouldn’t have had a nice day…. I’m not trying to be a bully, I’m not trying to be a tough guy. But you’re fucking with my life.”

Moccia had already been required by Massachusetts state law to operate the restaurant at 25% capacity. “It’s a slap in the face, an extra three hundred,” he said.

“They want to crush small business,” Moccia elaborated. “The proof is in the pudding. They weren’t worried about Wegman’s — they weren’t worried about Target. They weren’t worried about those stores.”

As for the kitchen worker who was allegedly observed by the city official wearing a mask improperly, Moccia said he took no disciplinary action against the individual. “You’re in front of a 500 degree oven, you’re trying to cook, you’re trying to breathe,” he said. “You’re trying to earn an honest living in a dishonest world.”

In the end, Moccia said he was able to get the fine reduced to $50 after some time spent haggling with city authorities. “The government, they only care for us when they want to — when it benefits them,” he said. “They really don’t give a fuck.”

This is just one fine, at one restaurant, in one city. But it gives some insight into the kind of state intrusions that people have had to deal with around the country for the past year and a half — the necessity and efficacy of which haven’t really been audited in any kind of comprehensive way.

On a lighter note, if you’re in the Somerville area and enjoy breakfast food, go try out Ball Square Cafe. Tell ‘em I sent you!