The complaint came in last month from a resident of Kingston, a city in New York’s Hudson Valley: A local barbershop was still performing haircuts, in violation of New York’s emergency shutdown orders to thwart the coronavirus.
Two days later, a buildings investigator went out to investigate the claim. La Lima Barbershop at 678 Broadway was dark.
Three more visits, on April 13, 17, and 19 turned up the same result: “Appears to be closed,” the inspector wrote on each form.
The complaint was left unresolved until this week, when the proprietor of the shop, Joseph LaLima, was hospitalized for the coronavirus, setting off a furor in the Ulster County city, about 90 miles north of New York City.
Mr. LaLima had never stopped cutting hair, despite Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s order. But he was not doing it in his shop; he was doing in the privacy of his home — in the back of the shop.
“He said do not open up your shops, barbershops, beauty parlors, nail salons, tattoo parlors,” Mr. LaLima said on Friday, referring to the governor. “So I didn’t.”
Mr. LaLima, who spoke just after his release from a four-day hospitalization, began to get agitated. “It said you can work from home,” he said. “678 Broadway is my home!”
But according to state officials, Mr. LaLima’s interpretation of the order does not square with its actual text. The March 21 rule did not just order the closure of the physical spaces where services like manicures and haircuts are performed; it required services like nail-painting and buzz cuts to cease completely.
“These services cannot be provided while maintaining social distance,” the order reads.
In his daily briefing on Friday, Gov. Cuomo denounced Mr. LaLima’s actions 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.”
A few hours after leaving the hospital, Mr. LaLima railed against the governor. He said he had done no wrong, and was simply trying to make a living.
“I am aggravated to the nines,” Mr. LaLima said. “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?” he asked.
Richard Azzopardi, a senior adviser to the governor, was unmoved by Mr. LaLima’s defense. “There is no excuse to be reckless in a pandemic,” he said.
The coronavirus has killed 64 people in Ulster County, and more than 1,500 people have been infected. Eleven people are currently hospitalized in the county, and health officials fear that some of Mr. LaLima’s clients may be next.
Some of the county’s 55 disease investigators are now trying to trace those customers. According to the barber, many of his clients were police officers and firefighters, whose hair he cut for free.
“I did them a favor!” Mr. LaLima said. “And I didn’t give it to anybody else. I got it from somebody that came into my shop.”
The Ulster County district attorney’s office sees the matter differently: It has launched an investigation into whether Mr. LaLima violated public health laws, a criminal offense, and whether any of his clients may face penalties.
“This kind of flouting of the rules is unacceptable, and it puts lives in danger,” said Patrick K. Ryan, the Ulster county executive. “We are taking it very seriously.”
The news of an illicit barber first spread through a public message sent on Wednesday by the Ulster County Health Department, which urged anyone whose hair had been cut at “a barbershop on Broadway” to call their doctor and be tested for the virus.
“We are taking extraordinary measures to try and minimize the spread of this dangerous disease,” Dr. Carol Smith, the Ulster County health commissioner, said in a statement. “Learning that a barbershop has been operating illicitly for weeks with a Covid-19 positive employee is extraordinarily disheartening.”
Until Mr. LaLima went public with his identity on Friday, at least three local barbers whose shops are also on Broadway said they faced a barrage of angry calls and messages from people suspicious that they might have been the culprit.
“He put the people in danger,” said Mostafa Oukili, who owns Mostafa’s Broadway Barbershop, which he closed in early March, before the mandatory order, because he said his wife is a cancer survivor and he feared that she might become infected. “You can’t work six feet away as a barber.”
Mr. LaLima has been operating the barbershop on Broadway since 1975, when he converted a children’s bicycle store that he had bought the year before for $12,000, according to a 2013 article. A motorcycle aficionado and Vietnam veteran, he said he has been cutting hair since he returned from military service in 1968.
Mr. LaLima is not the only hairdressing scofflaw. This week, Karl Manke, 77, a barber in Owosso, Mich., had his business and professional licenses suspended after he reopened his shop in defiance of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s order. Despite the suspension of his licenses, he said he planned to keep cutting hair.
Mr. LaLima was similarly disposed. He said 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.
Jesse McKinley contributed reporting from Albany, N.Y.