Restaurant association calls for crackdown on COVID rule violators

Des Moines' Court Avenue district has a collection of bars and restaurants. The Iowa Restaurant Association received a state grant to help businesses recover from the pandemic. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Members of an Iowa association of restaurants and bars are pushing for added enforcement of COVID-related rules, including suspension of liquor licenses for violators. 

“They are looking at a little more stringent enforcement actions,” Jessica Dunker, president and CEO of the Iowa Restaurant Association, said of state officials.

Representatives of the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals and the Alcoholic Beverages Division did not immediately respond to questions about enforcement.

Questions also have arisen over how many of the businesses are being inspected in person. And the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued guidelines to keep patrons safe.

Gov. Kim Reynolds has twice suggested this month that she might reinstate mitigation measures on bars if the state sees evidence of virus spread among young people in those businesses.

Dunker said businesses fear the state will further limit capacity or temporarily shut down bars and restaurants again, but she said that is unlikely. Dunker, who has worked closely with state officials, does not expect those actions and has not been informed they are coming, she said.

“Business owners, I think, would lose their minds,” if more restrictions were put in place, Dunker said. “I have been led to believe that there is no appetite for closing private businesses again.”

Dunker added that Reynolds’ move to push for in-person classes at schools casts doubt there will be more business restrictions.

“But we would be supportive if there was some enforcement teeth put in the next (Reynolds) proclamation,” she added. 

“The number one concern is they want people who aren’t following the rules need to have some kind of penalties,” Dunker said. “My members are doing what they are supposed to do. They feel they are at a competitive disadvantage.”

Each bar and restaurant is supposed to have a chair for each person in the establishment. They are also supposed to keep six feet between tables and follow cleaning protocols.

“People are saying, ‘I’m doing everything I’m supposed to do and the jerk down the street is doing whatever they want,’” Dunker said. 

Even the scene inside a bar can change because of the limits — for those who choose to comply, Dunker said. 

“Having a dance floor is impossible unless you give everyone a box to dance in,” Dunker said. “The experiences have been limited so much.”

Those who don’t play by the rules only risk varying civil citations, with little threat of a fine, or perhaps a nasty letter to the state alcoholic officials, who consider license renewals, Dunker said. She has not heard of a single state fine for violating the COVID-related rules for restaurants and bars. There was a local fine for a Burlington business that didn’t shut down, Dunker added.

The restaurant association, which represents 600 of Iowa’s 6,000 restaurants and bars, argued that scofflaws are at a competitive advantage by saving the cost of complying and packing more people in, Dunker said. 

Chris Diebel, managing partner of Bubba restaurant in downtown Des Moines, said until the state starts fining people something like $500 at a time for violations, some bar and restaurant owners will ignore the calls for social distancing.

“Some are taking it seriously and some are blatantly ignoring the rules for short-term gain,” Diebel said. “We are taking this very seriously.”

Diebel said he’s heard rumblings the state might reinstate the 50% capacity limits that were in effect earlier in the year.

“It really wouldn’t change our situation much,” Diebel said. “We are running at 50 percent anyway. It’s not six feet table to table. It’s six feet from shoulder to shoulder” of the customers sitting closest to each other, he added.

Bubba is generating about half its usual revenue, fighting through the “ghost town” climate downtown during the week and “respectable” dining room crowds on weekends, Diebel said. The announcement that Des Moines Performing Arts’ Broadway series is postponed until at least February, while Wells Fargo Arena also has delayed events, has driven home the need for any added federal or state aid possible, he added.

Debbie Parks, marketing director for Parks Marina Inc. in Okoboji, said she supports Reynolds but hopes another forced capacity limit isn’t coming. “If she does it, I guess we’ll have to roll with it,” said Parks, who represents several restaurants in the Iowa Great Lakes area.

“Business is already down,” Parks said. “People have to make their own decision, and some people are choosing not to come out and that’s OK. We are doing our best to spread people out and to sanitize.”

Parks said new fines would seem excessive. “People are doing the best they can,” she added.

The restaurant association also is working with the state’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board to drum up support for relief from property taxes and sales taxes that lawmakers declined to provide last session, Dunker said.

Most reopened bars and restaurants are doing less than 50% of their normal business still, Dunker said. Many are having trouble getting their employees back, in part because of the extra unemployment benefits provided during the pandemic. While that has been great for employees, not as much has been done for employers, Dunker said. 

She noted, however, that the Iowa Economic Development Authority, the Iowa Department of Revenue and Iowa Workforce Development “did everything possible” administratively for the businesses through grants and delays in deadlines.