A little Huntington Beach political attitude has been transplanted north to Venice Beach in recent weeks, and the reviews from locals and tourists have not been winning.
Strollers, bikers and runners on Ocean Front Walk expressed everything from sadness to disgust to pronounced disinterest in a giant sign along the famous boardwalk that suggests people should disdain vaccines that combat the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Leave the Vax, Take the Cannoli” reads an expansive wall mural on the side of an apartment building, three stories above street level in the heart of Venice’s visitor-heavy boardwalk. The message comes from a Huntington Beach restaurant, whose owner has said he believes that face masks and vaccine mandates are a tyrannical theft of the public’s liberty.
Tony Roman previously posted signs at his Basilico’s Pasta e Vino restaurant saying that those wearing masks had to remove them to be served. Last year, he paid for a billboard message on La Cienega Boulevard in Los Angeles, reiterating his anti-mask view.
“Leave the Vax, Take the Cannoli” is his latest message to Los Angeles County, described as “enemy territory” in his news release about the new provocation. The message is a play on a famous line from the movie “The Godfather.” (After a Mafia hit in the classic film, a mob lieutenant tells a hit man to “leave the gun, take the cannoli” as they leave a murder scene.)
Locals in Venice said they believed the Orange County restaurant owner was trying to get under the skin of people in the famously liberal and freewheeling beach town. Passersby on Saturday said Roman instead betrays his ignorance, at best, and, at worst, perpetuates anti-science views that endanger the public’s health.
While Los Angeles city officials have said nothing about the content of the sign, they contend it was painted without required permits, given the building’s historic status. A pending enforcement action could mean removal of the advertisement and fines.
“A cannoli won’t save us,” said one disgusted tourist, named Barak, as he squinted up at the message. “Vaccines have been helping save people all over the country and helping people get out of this COVID coma we’ve been in. And for someone, with all the evidence, to still spend money to spread disinformation — that’s just not great.” The New York resident declined to give his last name.
Dov Rudnick, an L.A. schoolteacher, had come to Ocean Front Walk for an annual two-day public reading of “Moby Dick.” He said the sign’s message was worse than misinformed.
“To actively tell people that the vaccine is harmful, that you should not take it, that makes you complicit in the murderous trail of this virus,” said Rudnick, 44. “So it’s very, very disturbing.”
Venice locals Lisa Spencer and Jordan Williamson had just finished a morning workout when the sign caused them to stop and glare at it.
“The vaccine is science. We all know that,” Spencer said. “The point is for us all to do our part to get over this pandemic.”
Williamson said the unvaccinated population and the continued spread of the virus had hit him personally because doctors have said he and other family members can’t visit his mother in North Carolina because she has an autoimmune illness that puts her at greater risk if she contracts COVID-19.
“I saw when they were putting [the sign] up and one guy was just gloating. People aren’t taking it seriously, and it stinks,” Williamson said. “It’s been like two years since I have seen my mom.”
Another couple who said they were on vacation from Colorado learned the difficult consequences of refusing the vaccine. Kevin, who declined to give his last name for privacy reasons, said his cousin had died just two days earlier of COVID-19.
“He just refused the vaccine,” Kevin said. “He refused to do it. Then he got sick.”
Views along the boardwalk differed on whether messages that fly in the face of science and public health guidelines should be permitted such a public airing.
“The 1st Amendment says people are allowed to be stupid, as long as it doesn’t harm other people,” said Rudnick, the teacher. “But I would approve of a move to remove [the sign], because it misleads people and it perpetuates a public health crisis. That does harm other people.”
But others said no harm would be done by allowing the restaurant owner to express a dissenting view.
“If someone wants to put a banner like this up, I’m fine. If someone wants a banner in favor of the vaccine, that’s fine too,” said Jeffrey Reynoso, 25, a Venice resident who said he has not been vaccinated. “Especially out here in Venice, everyone’s different. There’s free speech everywhere.”
Roman did not respond Saturday to a message left at his Huntington Beach restaurant. But in previous conversations with the media he has depicted himself as a crusader against government overreach.
An announcement about the Venice Beach sign called his restaurant a “freedom battleground.” The news release said he intended to spread his message to “enemy territory.”
“Tony remains defiant, standing against vax mandates in defense of American liberty, like he stood from day one,” says the statement, “… never allowing masks in his restaurant, never backing down in front of legal and personal threats, always defending freedom, Constitution and our indelible rights.”
While unlikely that the sign will face a legal challenge based on its content, L.A. officials said they are reviewing whether the one-story-high painting will be permitted to remain, given that the property owner did not obtain a permit required to make alterations to a historic structure.
The Los Angeles City Council approved historic-cultural monument status for the building, at 1305 Ocean Front Walk, just south of Westminster Avenue, in 2018. Known as the Potter Building, the 109-year-old apartment structure now has shops at street level. It’s squeezed between a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream outlet and a tattoo parlor and Peruvian restaurant.
The city Planning Department’s office of historic resources must issue permits for murals on designated historic monuments. Because it did not in this instance, the restaurateur’s paint job will be referred to the Department of Building and Safety, “which will initiate an enforcement process,” said a spokesman in City Councilman Mike Bonin’s office.
The building’s owner could not be reached Saturday.