FREDERICKSBURG, Va. — A Virginia restaurant owner is openly defying health authorities' COVID-19 restrictions as the fate of his business lies with a judge.
For more than a month now, the owner of Gourmeltz restaurant in Fredericksburg has refused to make his workers wear masks.
The state has sued to force him to close, and a judge has promised to decide his future in the coming days.
Matt Strickland has spent five years building his business from food truck to big storefront, but all that is at risk because Strickland refuses to comply with Virginia's mandates on masking and social distancing inside.
Virginia says the mandates are put in place to slow the spread of a virus that's now killed more than half a million Americans.
"I'm not afraid of the state, I'm not afraid of the federal government," said Strickland. "I spent most of my adult life fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. I have no problem coming home and fighting here in Virginia."
Inside the restaurant and bar on Route 1 in Spotsylvania County, there is not a mask in sight -- not on the workers, nor on the customers sitting at the bar.
Virginia health departments orders ban any customers from even sitting at the bar. The orders require all employees to wear masks.
Even some of Strickland's customers are skeptical of his defiance.
"That's kind of stupid," said Dedrick Napper, who was on his way in to buy lunch. "The mask is not a big deal. You should wear a mask," he said.
"If you do what the government says just because they say so, they'll keep taking and taking and the things you give them you'll never get back," Strickland said.
"It’s crucial that everyone play their part and adhere to the COVID guidelines in order for Virginia to return to normal as quickly and safely as possible," said Charlotte Gomer, a spokeswoman for Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring.
The restaurant is still open, even though the health department revoked its restaurant permit a month ago. Now the state's suing Strickland, asking a judge to order the restaurant permanently closed.
"The state, the government, the president... They will never scare me into backing down. I will never kneel down and kiss that ring. I will fight as long as I've got to fight. I will fight as hard as I have to fight," Strickland said.
Gourmeltz "has been serving customers without a single incident of COVID-19, including any potential reports through contact tracing, nearby outbreaks, or any customers or employees testing positive, since the outbreak began," said his lawyer, former Republican Rep. Bob Barr of Georgia.
A fund drive to support the restaurant has raised more than $9,000.
The judge is slated to rule by Friday -- and he has the full weight of law enforcement behind him.
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