This story spread like a virus. Five days after New York State governor Andrew Cuomo’s announced that an unnamed Kingston barber had violated the state’s rules on social distancing by “illicitly” giving haircuts at his Broadway business, contracted the Covid 19 virus himself, and possibly infected a dozen clients, another saga involving a Saugerties auction house also accused of violating public-health edicts had taken over the local headlines.
Over the last weekend, local social media were buzzing with an image of a sign posted on the door of NJA Auctions in the Simmons Plaza in Saugerties by owner Steve Jolley, which said in part that the use of face masks and social distancing would not be enforced at the establishment. “If this makes you uncomfortable, we advise that you do not enter. You are a free citizen here to make your own decision.”
The message of defiance was shared widely on social media and, according to town police chief Joseph Sinagra, led to 13 complaint referrals from the state PAUSE enforcement task force. The complaints stated that the business, which is not essential according to state criteria, was open on Saturday, May 16, with many customers in attendance.
In the previous few days, the story of Joe LaLima’s barber shop and home at 678 Broadway in Kingston had spread internationally. Major newspapers, the television networks, and significant social-media outlets conveyed similar information. LaLima’s story seemed the perfect partisan weapon in the struggle between those who want to reopen the American economy later and those who want to reopen it sooner.
Was Joe LaLima, Sr., the 76-year-old Kingston barber who’s been plying his trade since 1975, a symbol of the reckless don’t-care attitude that had allowed the spread of the worst world pandemic in over a century? Or was he just a little guy trying to make a living by helping out a few old acquaintances in an economically trying time? Or was he both?
LaLima defends his working
In his daily briefing last Friday, Cuomo had criticized LaLima without naming him. “You know that is an occupation of close proximity, right? You can’t really socially distance and do a haircut,” the governor said. “That is by definition an up-close and personal occupation.”
LaLima said he had done no wrong. He told the Daily Mail that he was using his home in the same building, which he owned, not his shop. He was simply trying to make a living.
“I am aggravated to the nines,” an upset LaLima told New York Times reporter Sarah Maslin Nir. “Is Cuomo going to pay me? Is he going to make up the difference? Is he going to pay my taxes? Is he going to pay the heat and electric? Is he going to feed my family?”
A Kingston building investigator had reported that on four separate occasions he found that the barbershop at 678 Broadway was dark. “Appears to be closed,” he wrote on each form.
“He said do not open up your shops, barbershops, beauty parlors, nail salons, tattoo parlors,” La Lima said last Friday, referring to the governor. “So I didn’t. It said you can work from home. 678 Broadway is my home!”
The March 21 rule required services to cease completely. “These services cannot be provided while maintaining social distance,” the order read.
According to the New York Times account, LaLima said that many of his clients were police officers and firefighters, whose hair he cut for free. “I did them a favor!” LaLima said. “And I didn’t give it to anybody else. I got it from somebody that came into my shop.”
Time for the courts
The Ulster County district attorney’s office is investigating whether LaLima has violated public-health laws, and whether any of his clients may face penalties.
“This kind of flouting of the rules is unacceptable, and it puts lives in danger,” scolded Ulster County executive Pat Ryan. “We are taking it very seriously.”
LaLima told the Times he was feeling well and ready to cut hair as soon as possible. “I think the people that are up in arms are idiots,” he said.
On Monday, meanwhile, the Saugerties building department, accompanied by Saugerties police, served Jolley, the owner of NJA Auctions, with a cease-and-desist order, closing the business down until the state reopens this class of business. “Failure by NJA Auctions to comply with the building department order in addition to the governor’s executive order will result in law-enforcement action in the form of criminal charges lodged against the owner and anyone else found to be in violation of the law,” said police chief Joseph Sinagra.
The NJA Auctions Facebook page addressed the situation on Sunday. “As all of you know that actually took the time to talk, this was not about the money,” reads the post from the unrepentant Jolley. “This was about our rights and our freedom. I will continue to own my business my way. Friendly, safe and respectful to those who show me the same.”
The posting stated that the business had been open for a month, though the sign had only been up a few days. “Now one little crybaby takes a picture, and here comes the hoard.”