CORONAVIRUS

As some bars close, Iowa steps up effort to enforce social distancing at others

Restaurants that don't follow coronavirus mitigation steps could face fine, loss of licenses

Bar patrons wait in line Aug. 22 in front of Bo James in Iowa City. A new proclamation from Gov. Kim Reynolds ordered ba
Bar patrons wait in line Aug. 22 in front of Bo James in Iowa City. A new proclamation from Gov. Kim Reynolds ordered bars in Johnson, Linn and four other counties to close amid rising coronavirus cases. Bars and restaurants that don’t have to close still are subject to social distancing requirements put in place earlier in the pandemic. (Nick Rohlman/freelance for The Gazette)

DES MOINES — The heads of two state agencies — the Alcoholic Beverages Division and Department of Inspections and Appeals — recently announced a joint strategy to enforce compliance with Gov. Kim Reynolds’ emergency public health disaster proclamation regarding social distancing and advanced hygiene practices at Iowa bars, restaurants and other food establishments.

That was before Reynolds on Thursday took more aggressive action to stem rising COVID-19 infections in six counties — including Linn and Johnson — by issuing a new public health emergency proclamation that will close all bars, taverns, breweries and nightclubs in those counties.

Even with the new order, Iowa Alcoholic Beverages Division Administrator Stephen Larson and Inspections and Appeals Director Larry Johnson are working together to ensure that the Iowa bars and restaurants still operating follow public health guidelines set forth by a proclamation the governor issued earlier in the coronavirus pandemic.

To promote social distancing and limit the spread of COVID-19, that proclamation requires at least 6 feet of distance between each group or individual, all patrons must have a seat at a table or bar, and an establishment must limit patrons from congregating together closer than 6 feet.

“COVID-19 is still with us, and we need bars and restaurants to help mitigate the spread of the virus,” Larson said. “For those businesses that choose not to, they need to understand that there are consequences.”

Since July 30, the Alcoholic Beverages Division and Department of Inspections and Appeals have received a combined total of 193 COVID-19-related complaints, according to Stefanie Bond, public information officer with the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals.

For businesses with an alcoholic beverage permit or license, Larson said businesses deemed to be in violation of the governor’s proclamation could face a $1,000 fine for the first offense. For businesses with only a food license, state officials will issue a warning for an initial violation.

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After that, a second documented infraction for businesses with either type of license will trigger a seven-day suspension of the alcohol permit or license by ABD, as well as a seven-day suspension by DIA of the food license.

A third infraction will trigger the revocation of all food and alcohol permits and licenses.

“Public safety is of the utmost importance,” Johnson said. “Although a majority of bars and restaurants are voluntarily complying with social distancing requirements, we will take these necessary steps to ensure the health and safety of Iowans.”

In a recent teleconference with Larson, Johnson and Josh Happe, bureau chief of ABD’s Regulatory Compliance Bureau, the trio answered questions about the new joint enforcement effort. The teleconference took place before Reynolds issued the new proclamation Thursday.

Q: What precipitated the initiative?

A: Larson: “There are some bad actors and those bad actors were generating complaints to us, through both of our agencies and others and, as we continued to move forward, we felt that we probably needed to develop a strategy on how we can engage more in corrective behavior in the field together. Overall, it was timing, how do we align strategies, and ensuring that we can be fair, efficient and yet have facts and not just anonymous calls or anonymous complaints because we would be affecting licensees if we would make allegations. It was timing and it was an evolving area.”

Q: How will you enforce the governor’s COVID-19 proclamation requirements?

Larson: “Both agencies have set up a complaint form in which those who want to submit a complaint will go through DIA and/or ABD — we’re working together to share that information between the two divisions — and then the two agency bureau chiefs will work together in regards to those things which would be some commonality in that they sell food and they sell liquor and they have various permits on both sides.”

A: Happe: “We’re getting complaint-based information in through the ABD website as well as shared information from DIA. We’re evaluating the complaints that are coming in to make a determination whether we want to conduct an inspection or open it as an investigation. A lot goes into that determination as to justifying the use of resources or not. We are doing some proactive inspections that aren’t complaint-based where we’re just out in an area for a complaint, and we’re going to hit a bunch of different licensees in the area for inspections as well proactively just to make sure that they’re following the proclamation steps.”

Q: What happens if during an on-site inspection you see a violation? Do you just inform them and let them correct it on their own or do they get cited on the spot and the process begins?

A: Happe: “This isn’t like a criminal citation that local law enforcement can issue. If we’re out in the field and we observe a violation during the inspection or the complaint investigation, we’re talking to the licensee, we’re developing evidence or facts and then we’re bringing that information back and we’re giving it to our administrative actions area that are our ‘prosecutors’ that determine whether to file an administrative action or a complaint against the licensee for a violation of our code chapter.”

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A: Larson: “If there would be a situation where something is going on, clearly our team is coordinating that with DIA and with local law enforcement. So if you had a situation, there is a process if you saw imminent health danger or there is clearly something happening, there are channels that are set up. What we kicked off (July 30) collectively together is a beginning. Let’s just say there are channels being developed that it wouldn’t mean that we would not report this immediately but yet there are other partners that might be able that would take other action if it was deemed imminent.”

A: Happe: “Before the investigators or compliance officers are going into an area in the state of Iowa, we’re definitely touching base with the local police and sometimes county sheriffs to let them know that we’re there and then give them an opportunity to work with us and develop any potential case or not depending on the facts and circumstances. If there was a situation that had an immediate public health or public safety nexus that the investigators and the local police were able to observe, there is a process — we call it an emergency suspension — where we can immediately suspend the alcohol license. Before we would do anything like that ... it would take a lot of coordination with that local law enforcement just from a logistical standpoint.”

Q: Is this a combination of state and county action? Will some of these complaints come from county officials?

Happe: “They can. We accept complaints from all over. We get complaints from citizens, other licensees, local police and counties, but I think it’s important to note here that the local counties and police can act on the violation as well. A local police officer could write a misdemeanor citation for a violation of the proclamation as well, separate from what we’re doing and from us.

Q: Is this similar to what transpired after Iowa passed the Clean Indoor Air Act and a number of places were cited for violating the indoor smoking ban and how that proceeded administratively and some went to court?

A: Larson: “There is a similar process here. The wheels are in motion to ultimately take all of that information both through observation and through fact-finding to our side and do an administrative action that would lead up to fines, or suspension or revocation. In addition to that, the other issue here is when the license would come up for renewal, that event could impact the renewal of that liquor license in the future.”

Q: How much staff and resources are devoted to this?

Larson: “There are various things that we’re all doing from an administrative perspective, but as far as what’s actively going on we’ve dedicated eight investigators that we already currently have that do all kinds of alcohol-related events. So, generally, what we’re doing is basically realigning some of our resources in regard to COVID-19, and Larry has a number of assets that they do as well in their normal course of business. Licensees have to be in compliance with various things to provide a safe and proper place and/or building for customers to be involved in on the retail privilege, but also they have to conform with all resolutions that are issued regarding public health and public safety.”

Q: Are you getting any pushback from the industry that this is government overreach?

A: Johnson: “Not that I’m aware of. If anything, I think that there are a lot of good actors that just want to make sure that they’re complying, but no pushback.”

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Happe: “My impression is that the industry is trying to police itself. You just have those few bad actors that aren’t doing the right thing. There are large groups of licensees trying to do the right thing. ...”

Comments: (515) 243-7220; rod.boshart@thegazette.com

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