CORONAVIRUS

Iowa regulators step up enforcement of COVID-19 rules at bars and restaurants

After slow start, regulators have opened 59 cases

Bar patrons wait in line Aug. 22 in front of Bo-James in Iowa City. Records show it reached a settlement with state regu
Bar patrons wait in line Aug. 22 in front of Bo-James in Iowa City. Records show it reached a settlement with state regulators over emergency health order violations, calling for a two-day suspension. (Nick Rohlman/freelance for The Gazette)

DES MOINES — After a slow start, Iowa regulators have stepped up their enforcement of public health orders on requirements for bars and restaurants during the COVID-19 pandemic, state records show.

Earlier this fall, hundreds of complaints were filed but only two actions were taken in the first month after state agencies announced a plan to crack down on bars and restaurants that violate the governor’s orders.

Over three months from August through October, however, the state issued two dozen citations for COVID-19 policy infractions, state records show.

A spokesman for the Iowa Alcoholic Beverages Division, the agency primarily responsible for enforcement of regulations governing restaurants and bars, said the agency has received roughly 650 COVID-19-related complaints, completed more than 2,500 inspections and opened 59 cases.

“ABD continues to conduct inspections and investigations, when warranted,” agency spokesman Jake Holmes said in an emailed response to questions. “The vast majority of establishments that we visit appear to be in compliance with the governor’s proclamations. There are a small amount of establishments that are not complying, and they are being held accountable.”

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, in conjunction with the state public health department, has issued multiple public health proclamations throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, which first reached Iowa in March.

From the start, the orders have always required restaurants and bars to enact social distancing in order to minimize patrons being close to each other in an effort to limit the virus’ spread. But for many months the state did not enforce those social distancing requirements.

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On July 30, the state Alcoholic Beverages Division and Department of Inspections and Appeals announced a joint effort to enforce the public health orders by issuing fines and citations to violators. But in the first month, the agencies took only two actions amid more than 350 complaints. At the time, a spokesman for division said the investigations can be time-consuming, and said regulators were attempting to work though complaints as quickly as possible while ensuring due process.

That pace picked up from August through October, state records show. The state issued two dozen citations.

Of those 24 citations: 14 resulted in a penalty or settlement, most of which included a $1,000 fine; two were dismissed; and eight are still open, awaiting final action.

The citations were issued in cities across Iowa, including the public university cities of Iowa City, Ames and Cedar Falls — where large crowds of students were seen gathering at bars as the fall semester started.

In Iowa City, records show that Bo-James and Players agreed to settlements over violations.

“Our staff has done a great job enforcing the governor’s proclamations,” Holmes said.

Holmes said the investigations are the result of myriad reporting sources: roughly 60 percent came from inspections, 30 percent from complaints and 10 percent from other enforcement agencies, like local police and sheriff departments.

Jessica Dunker, president and chief executive officer of the Iowa Restaurant Association, which represents and advocates for restaurants and bars across the state, said most venues are doing the right things to comply with COVID-19 public health policies. She said the industry welcomed the increased enforcement because venues found targeted enforcement of bad actors preferable to widespread shutdowns early in the pandemic.

“It’s just a reminder to people we called for that authority to be given to (state regulators), because we were incredibly frustrated as an industry by blanket closures that impacted people who were doing everything right,” Dunker said. “We’re certainly worried for operators that this happens to, but we believe that they will pay the fine or do whatever they are asked to do, and that moving forward they will fall in line with the restrictions that they’re being asked to do.

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“You’re not finding many complaints from the industry about that. The greater frustration has always been competing with people who aren’t playing by the same sorts of rules you are. The vast majority of people have played by the rules that have been given to us.”

Dunker said the food service industry continues to suffer greatly from the pandemic. She said projections suggest the state will lose a net 1,000 locations over the course of one year, a drop of roughly 16 percent. And she said the industry is projected to lose roughly $1 billion, a 23 percent drop from the $4.4 billion it was projected to earn this year.

“It’s glum. I’m not going to lie,” Dunker said.

Dunker encouraged Iowans to take advantage of restaurants’ and bars’ extended services, like drive-through and takeout orders.

Holmes encouraged venues to comply with public health orders and when in doubt to request guidance from state agencies. He also encouraged customers to help venues by complying with those public health orders, many of which are focused on keeping patrons from separate groups at least 6 feet apart.

“To the establishments that are complying, thank you. Please continue to do so. The establishments that choose not to comply will be held accountable,” Holmes said.

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