THE BIG TALK
An occasional interview series with Americans who are challenging the status quo.
Jordan Serulneck figured he had done the painstaking homework needed to launch a small business — in his case, a craft brewing company in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
“Well, you could call it market research, but I’ll call it drinking all over the planet in the Navy,” said the burly and bearded ex-sailor. “I found everywhere I went that beer was the lubrication and everyone has a good ol’ jolly time.”
That background served him well in providing a jolly good time and beer to thirsty patrons of Seven Sirens Brewing Co. when it opened on Feb. 14. Less than a month later, with COVID-19 raging, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, slammed the doors on businesses with a strict lockdown that, at that point, would supposedly ease hospital overcrowding and “flatten the curve.”
“It took us three years worth of bureaucratic red tape to open up, find a location and financing. We’re in a historic district, so it took us six months just to get the facade approved. Three years of nonsense,” Mr. Serulneck said. “We were open 28 days, and then the first shutdown in Pennsylvania happened.”
Some level of restriction never ceased. Consequently, Mr. Serulneck and the 20-odd employees of Seven Sirens are among the millions of small American businesses simply trying to survive what has become an unrelenting hand brake on commerce. What was billed as a short pause has become a long one, and as the holidays and small businesses’ greatest period of profit slipped past, Mr. Serulneck is among the owners increasingly unwilling to follow the rules.
“We did really good the first month we were open, and then we were told 14 days,” he said. “So we said, ‘All right, that shouldn’t be an issue.’ And then it just kept getting extended and extended and extended.”
The first month’s money dwindled. Seven Sirens’ business model is built around its 7,000-square-foot interior, with a bar that seats 20 and a room with a capacity of 320 that also accommodates live music. It has no kitchen. Hungry patrons relied on “a plethora of food trucks who run a better kitchen than I ever could,” he said.
Given that the brewery shares its parking lot with a bank, outdoor keg parties with the more than two dozen types of beer on tap was problematic even if the weather complied.
“So we just kind of kept going with what we were told, which was ‘We’re just going to extend this another couple of weeks,’ or ‘We’re just going to do this for a month,’” Mr. Serulneck said. “Then it got to the point where it’s like, ‘OK, what are we waiting for?’”
It is a surreal yet all-too-familiar situation for small businesses in dozens of states. The tight team at Seven Sirens took cutbacks and reduced hours, but the company has not laid off a single worker.
But the brewery is no longer complying without question to seemingly permanent, onerous restrictions and the fluctuating reasons given for them. Seven Sirens will not close; the beer is flowing, albeit to limited customers wearing masks, social distancing and sticking to coronavirus protocols during a holiday season when the temperature in eastern Pennsylvania hovers around freezing.
The decision to go rogue was made the night before Thanksgiving, traditionally a big drinking night in Seven Sirens’ territory, and a state order for bars and restaurants to close from 5 p.m. to 8 a.m.
“We were not going to comply with that,” Mr. Serulneck said, “and that’s where this started to pick up traction.”
Mr. Serulneck does not consider his actions signs of open rebellion, but he isn’t entirely uncomfortable with the phrase either.
“We’re not revolutionists. We’re not just going out and doing this and defying that,” he said. “I consider what we’re doing as not acknowledging unlawful orders. We believe that we have a right to earn a living, to feed our families, and our license is our property and can’t be taken away without due process.”
Seven Sirens is hardly a Keystone State outlier. It is one of more than 75,000 small businesses and supporters that comprise a Facebook group called Pennsylvania Opening Businesses/Defying the Governor.
People nationwide have responded to Seven Sirens’ civil disobedience.
The response has been overwhelmingly positive, Mr. Serulneck said, although some “who will never be our customers anyway” have excoriated the bar for alleged recklessness.
The fast growth of Pennsylvania Opening Businesses/Defying the Governor speaks for itself. For the most part, the authorities on the ground have been sympathetic.
Bethlehem is an old steel town (Seven Sirens was a Bethlehem Steel store from the 1890s) nestled in Lehigh County, where the Appalachian Trail snakes through lush forests surrounded by territory strip-mined in the 1970s. It is the country of the 1978 film “The Deer Hunter,” a patch where patriotism still runs deep but neither oppressive government nor a reduction in beer is taken lightly.
Bethlehem, like Pittsburgh on the opposite side of the state, has had to reinvent itself as the steel portion of the industrial revolution receded, and the area has known hard times. Consequently, Bethlehem has welcomed small businesses like Seven Sirens warmly.
Mr. Serulneck had nothing but praise for the Bethlehem Police Department, which he called “incredibly supportive” of what merchants are doing to stay afloat. He thinks Liquor Control Board agents, a branch of the Pennsylvania State Police, also are picking their battles because they are probably as confused as anyone else about what is allowed.
The rules have become so contradictory and confused that state officials from different agencies have visited separately and issued different orders, Mr. Serulneck said.
“Every time they come in, it’s a different interpretation of a vague order,” he said.
So the standoff in Bethlehem continues, just as it does in scores of other bars and businesses in Pennsylvania and elsewhere.
“There’s a lot of different establishments doing the same thing, and I’m not going to rat them out,” Mr. Serulneck said.