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Middleborough gun store among pockets of resistance to coronavirus retail closures in Mass.

Gun store has stayed open despite mandate it close

“In this country, we only have two leaders: God, No. 1. And Trump,” said John Costa, who has refused to close his Middleborough firearms shop, The Gunrunner.
“In this country, we only have two leaders: God, No. 1. And Trump,” said John Costa, who has refused to close his Middleborough firearms shop, The Gunrunner.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

MIDDLEBOROUGH — With a Trump 2020 flag fluttering in the background, John Costa stood shoulder to shoulder with a Republican activist Tuesday outside his firearms shop, The Gunrunner, all while a Facebook live stream captured the small, five-person rally honoring his defiance.

“I’m making a killing!" said Costa, who has refused to close his store despite Governor Charlie Baker’s order for a swath of businesses, including firearms retailers, to shutter amid the COVID-19 pandemic — and a cease-and-desist order issued by Middleborough officials demanding he do the same.

“In this country, we only have two leaders,” Costa said into the iPhone camera broadcasting the feed. “God, No. 1. And Trump.”

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Costa’s open disregard is an extreme example of the pockets of disobedience that have sprouted in the face of Baker’s nonessential business closure order, putting local boards of health on the lookout for companies unaware of the need, or unwilling, to close their doors as officials attempt to slow the virus’s spread.

Among the state’s 250,000-plus registered businesses, state officials say, the scale is relatively small. The state’s Department of Labor Standards said it’s issued cease-and-desist orders to 123 companies, shuttering more than 350 locations statewide since the order was issued four weeks ago. Another 50 or so remain “under investigation,” according to the department.

The figure does not include any orders issued by municipalities, which have largely shouldered enforcement of the statewide directive. That also makes it difficult to identify an exact number of times officials have had to step in to close businesses across Massachusetts.

In Boston, city officials say they have identified fewer than two dozen businesses that were operating in violation of Baker’s order, a list mainly of hair and nail salons and at least 10 flower shops. In none of the cases, did the city issue fines that can range up to $300 under the order, which also warns that criminal penalties are possible.

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Towns and cities are seeing common threads. Pet groomers, smoke shops, even car washes — in many cases, “think they’re essential” even though they’re not, said Cheryl Sbarra, director of policy and law for the Massachusetts Association of Health Boards.

“There’ll always be outliers,” said Sbarra, whose organization provides legal education for towns and cities. “But from my understanding, they are few and far between.”

In Wakefield, owner Mark Panagakis has kept open Mark’s Smoke Stand & News Stand, where he said he sells many of the same items convenience stores do, such as water, cigarettes, and Lottery tickets. He said that given he sells newspapers, he also believes he falls under the exemption carved out for “workers who support radio, television, newspaper, and media service." (That’s generally been applied to reporters and news organizations.)

It wasn’t an issue until this week, when a representative of the Mystic Valley Public Health Coalition contacted him warning he would be issued a cease-and-desist order unless he closed.

“We’re not trying to be rebels or anything. We thought we were fine,” Panagakis said. “I’m definitely going to challenge [the order]. We’re trying to do everything the right way.”

Most noncompliance, officials said, was born from some early uncertainty around Baker’s March 23 order, when thousands of businesses flooded the Baker administration with inquiries about what it considered “essential” and whether they could be included. A week later, Baker updated the order, expanding both what could remain open and how long the closures would last; closures are now in effect until at least May 4.

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As the weeks have worn on, however, that confusion has been replaced in some cases by impatience.

“Some people are ready to have their businesses reopen — and are maybe a little too eager for that," said Chris English, chief of staff at Boston’s Inspectional Services Department, which on Wednesday issued a stop-work order to a hair salon in Hyde Park.

“We know it’s frustrating for a lot of people,” he said.

The order has already drawn legal challenges from a group of marijuana businesses and consumers, unsuccessfully challenging the decision to close recreational marijuana shops, and from a coalition of gun shops, advocacy groups, and would-be gun owners who sued in federal court in a bid to allow shuttered firearm dealers to open.

But that attempt to keep sales flowing for some has also become an ideological fight elsewhere, with The Gunrunner serving as a local symbol of conservatives’ protest of the restrictions.

On Tuesday, it drew Dianna Ploss, a Republican activist and talk radio host, to Costa’s store for the makeshift rally, where Costa, Ploss, and others gathered in a small group, none of them wearing masks while they sometimes draped their arms over each other.

“We’re not social-distanced. Are you worried?" Ploss asked Costa at one point.

“I’m not worried at all,” he said.

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On Thursday, Ploss is planning a “Liberate Massachusetts” protest outside the governor’s Swampscott home, according to an e-mail she circulated demanding that the state’s “economy must be reopened” and people’s Second Amendment rights “shall not be infringed.”

Baker did not directly address the possibility of the protest Thursday when asked at a State House news conference. But he said that in reopening the local economy, the decisions are “a little less about essential and nonessential” businesses and more focused on the criteria for any business to be open.

“This isn’t being done to punish anybody. OK?” Baker said of the restrictions. “It’s being done to try to keep people safe and it’s being done based on data and information on an unprecedented virus as we gather it and as it comes together.”

All the while, challenges roll on. In Middleborough, Costa’s store and another firearms retailer, the Middleboro Gun Shop, are appealing cease-and-desist orders they received to the town’s Board of Selectmen on Monday, according to town officials.

Unlike The Gunrunner, however, the Middleboro Gun Shop has been closed since it was ordered to, said owner Jim Dooley.

“A lot of other people who are staying home, they work from home. They can get their health and welfare taken care of. They can pay their rent. I can’t do that,” said Dooley, who’s frustrated by what he described as drastic differences in enforcement of the restrictions the state has put on daily life.

“We had people golfing over the weekend. What did they get? They just got run off the golf course," he said. "Me, I’m losing tens of thousands of dollars.”

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Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout