CORONAVIRUS

Lots of complaints, little action in bar and restaurant coronavirus crackdown

Only 2 actions and 1 warning issued in month after admonition

Bar patrons wait in line in front of Bo James in Iowa City on the night of Saturday, August 22, 2020. Bars in Iowa remai
Bar patrons wait in line in front of Bo James in Iowa City on the night of Saturday, August 22, 2020. Bars in Iowa remain open as students return to Iowa City for the fall semester. (Nick Rohlman/freelance for The Gazette)

DES MOINES — Hundreds of complaints about restaurants and bars not complying with social distancing orders amid the COVID-19 pandemic have been filed since two state agencies said they would start cracking down, but a month later, only two actions have been taken and just one warning issued.

The Iowa Alcoholic Beverages Division and Department of Inspections and Appeals announced July 30 their intention to issue fines and license suspensions to enforce social distancing requirements in bars and restaurants during the coronavirus pandemic.

Under Gov. Kim Reynolds’ public health proclamation, bars and restaurants must ensure at least 6 feet of space between each group or individual drinking or eating alone and all patrons must be seated.

While that remains required for all restaurants and many bars, Reynolds since has ordered bars in six counties including Linn and Johnson to close entirely. The closure order came days after students at Iowa’s public universities were seen crowding bars in Iowa City, Cedar Falls and Ames — but showing little regard for mitigation rules — before classes began this semester.

Reynolds’ closure order expires Sept. 20, but she said in a radio interview Friday she may take early action to lift the ban in all or some of the six counties.

Even if the bars are allowed to reopen, the virus mitigation steps remain in effect for now.

For violators on the first offenses, businesses with an alcohol license could be fined $1,000 by the state Alcoholic Beverages Division, and restaurants may be issued a warning by the state Department of Inspections and Appeals. A second offense would result in a seven-day suspension of a business’ alcohol or food license; a third offense would result in the business losing that license.

The Alcoholic Beverages Division, which provides oversight of bars and other venues that sell alcohol, has received 354 pandemic-related complaints.

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The division has opened 12 investigations and taken two actions — one against Boji Nites, an adult entertainment club in northwest Iowa’s Arnolds Park, and another against Dingus Lounge, a bar in Knoxville — for failing to adhere to social distancing requirements. The penalties have not yet been determined.

In that same time, the Department of Inspections and Appeals has received 154 pandemic-related complaints.

It has issued a solitary warning — to Classic Deli and Ice Cream Shoppe in Brooklyn — for a first offense. That warning was the result of a routine inspection, not a complaint, a department spokesman said.

The department does not levy fines; it can only revoke or suspend licenses to sell food. It has not taken either action.

A spokesman for the Alcoholic Beverages Division said the process of opening a case, completing an investigation and submitting a report to the administrative actions unit can be time-consuming and varies “quite a bit.”

“We are working through them as quickly as we can while still ensuring due process,” the division spokesman said.

“As the regulator of the alcohol industry in the state, the ABD must protect the health, welfare, and safety of the citizens of Iowa,” division director Stephen Larson wrote in a recent op-ed. “Enforcing proclamation requirements … protects Iowans.”

The Alcoholic Beverages Division has taken one other pandemic-related action, but earlier this year: in March, Kelly O’Sheas Shamrock Pub and Grille in Burlington had its alcohol license revoked for three weeks after it remained open during a period when the governor had ordered all bars and restaurants to be closed.

Rod Boshart of The Gazette Des Moines Bureau contributed.

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