Authorities come down hard on restaurants flouting COVID-19 rules

A number of areas are stepping up their policing efforts and increasing the penalties for violators. Meanwhile, more states are halting or reversing restaurants' re-openings.
Photograph: Shutterstock

Frustrated by the refusal of restaurateurs and their customers to abide by anti-COVID safety measures, state and local government figures are cracking down hard on the foot-draggers.

The actions—ranging from $5,000 fines to full shutdowns of businesses with repeat violations—come as more jurisdictions attempt to brake a nationwide spike in new coronavirus infections by re-tightening limits on restaurants’ dine-in service.

On Wednesday, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf reduced the number of seats that restaurants could use in their dining rooms to 25% of pre-pandemic capacities, after allowing up to 50% of interior space to be reopened to customers. Alcohol sales will be limited to the purchase of drinks to accompany a meal.

State police are enforcing the requirement, along with the usual social-distancing requirement that restaurant parties be kept at least six feet apart. In addition to levying fines of $50 to $5,000, the authorities are publishing their findings online, as health inspectors do with the results of their inspections.

Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb said Wednesday that he’s delaying the next phase of restaurants’ re-openings in his state for at least two weeks. Indoor dining will continue to be capped at 75% of capacity. Bars will remain at 50%.

New York, already one of the more strident enforcers of safety rules, will ratchet up its efforts starting today. Gov. Andrew Cuomo warned that he will more aggressively police compliance with the state's on-premise safety protocols, including the wearing of masks and social distancing.  He also announced that restaurants and bars will only be able to serve drinks starting today to patrons who order food and are seated at least  six feet apart. Walkup bar service is no longer permitted.

Any places that are found to be in violation of the rules three times will be shut down, Cuomo revealed.

Yesterday, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot warned that she will close restaurant dining rooms in her state for a second time if young restaurant and bar customers continue to flout such fundamental safety measures as wearing masks and keeping six feet away from strangers.  The responsibility, she said at a press conference, lies with the establishments. “If you are a business, we are not afraid to shut you down," Lightfoot said.

Her remarks followed the shutdown during the weekend of Wise Owl Drinkery & Cookhouse, a bar-restaurant in the city’s popular West Loop area that had refused to require masks and keep parties at least six feet apart. Six other establishments were given fines and citations alerting them to the possibility of a shutdown.

"I won't just turn the car around, I will do worse, I'm going to shut it off, I'm going to kick you out and I'm going to make you walk home," the mayor said. Just a few days earlier, the Democrat had indicated that a re-shutdown wasn’t likely. Her apparent change of heart came as Chicago’s rate of new infections has remained fairly constant.

Measures of the coronavirus’ prevalence in Maryland have declined, but that didn’t deter Gov. Larry Hogan from sending a stern letter to county executives on Tuesday, warning them that they need to clamp down on restaurants and bars that ignore the state’s safety protocols. With cases accelerating quickly elsewhere in the country, action needs to be taken now to keep the state’s numbers on the decline, Hogan stressed. He called for “active and aggressive local enforcement” of the safety rules.

“The vast majority of bars and restaurants in our state are in compliance, but some are flagrantly violating the laws and endangering our public health. You have the responsibility to enforce these laws,” Hogan wrote. “Violators should be warned, fined, have actions taken regarding their licenses, or closed if necessary.”

Milwaukee has similarly found the violators to be a minority of operations. Health Department officials paid unannounced visits to 94 eating and drinking establishments over the weekend. Four, or about 4%, were not enforcing mask and social distancing rules, as Mayor Tom Barrett explained to operators at a virtual meeting on Tuesday.

An ordinance that goes into effect Thursday will limit entry into the city’s restaurants to patrons who are wearing a mask. Places that don’t enforce the requirement will be hit with fines of $50 to $500, Barrett said. He also held out the possibility of revoking the licenses of repeat offenders.

Local media quoted Wisconsin Restaurant Association CEO Kristine Hillmer as saying 50% of her members oppose the mandate but indicated that “of course they will comply.”

Repeat violators will also be closed in Washington’s Kings County, which encompasses Seattle. Authorities there have begun spot-checking restaurants and bars to monitor compliance with county safety rules. First-time offenders will be informed of what their establishments need to do to comply with the rules. Subsequent infractions will trigger more serious actions, including shutdowns.

The stepped-up enforcement of mask and social-distancing mandates echoes the measures that were adopted weeks ago in New York, once the epicenter of the pandemic in the United States and now a model for how to flatten the curve on graphs of new infections. Cuomo empowered state liquor authorities to instantly shut down licensed businesses that ignored anti-COVID regulations, and beefed up the number of inspectors to catch repeat violators. He later imposed fines of $2,000 for noncompliance.

The actions resulted in the shutdown of The White Horse Tavern, a landmark facility in New York City.

Not every jurisdiction is able to heighten its enforcement of the anti-COVID measures recommended by health authorities. Van Johnson, the mayor of Savannah, Ga., said on a news broadcast Thursday morning that the July tally of new COVID cases in the city’s home county exceeds the total number of cases that were logged the prior four months. Yet he cannot even impose a mask mandate because Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp has issued an executive order that forbids counties and cities from imposing the requirement.

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