COVID-related complaints against Iowa bars are up more than 500%

By: - September 9, 2020 3:39 pm

Liquor bottles sit behind a bar. (Creative Commons photo via Pxhere)

Complaints from Iowans about bars and restaurants failing to impose COVID-19 mitigation measures have increased five-fold in recent weeks.

The increase in complaints appears to coincide with the Iowa Alcoholic Beverage Division’s July 30 announcement that it would be stepping up efforts to enforce compliance with Gov. Kim Reynolds’ proclamations regarding social distancing and other mitigation efforts to be taken in Iowa bars, restaurants and other food establishments.

The governor’s proclamations have varied, but at different times they have required the establishments to either eliminate on-the-premises operations or create at least six feet of physical distance between each group or individual dining or drinking. Some of the proclamations have also required customers to be seated at a table or bar, and required the establishments to restrict patrons from gathering in groups that don’t adhere to the six-foot rule.

Between March 17 and July 29, the Iowa Alcoholic Beverage Division fielded 147 complaints — an average of just over 1 complaint per day — about Iowa bars and restaurants violating laws and orders related to COVID-19 mitigation.

Between July 30 and September 8, the ABD fielded 229 such complaints, an average of 5.7 complaints per day.

The Alcoholic Beverages Division has warned businesses with an liquor licenses that they could face a $1,000 fine for a first offense. The Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals, which regulates those food establishments with only a food license, has said it would issue a warning for a first offense.

A second violation for establishments with and without a liquor license can lead to a seven-day suspension of the license by the ABD, as well as a seven-day suspension of the food license granted by the DIA. A third violation could trigger the revocation of all food and alcohol permits and licenses.

ABD spokesman Jake Holmes noted that the division does not have the ability to issue fines and citations on the spot. The agency initiates investigations as a result of both complaints and proactive inspections. Once an investigation is completed, Holmes said, a report is submitted to the division’s administrative actions unit, which reviews the case to determine whether a violation of law or one of the governor’s proclamations has occurred.

At this point, the division has a dozen open cases that could result in action against the license holders.

Due to the threat posed by the pandemic, the ABD conducted only one inspection between March 17 and July 29, but in the five weeks after the governor’s July 30 proclamation, the agency performed 617 inspections and launched 229 investigations related to COVID-19 mitigation.

“ABD conducts routine inspections normally, but decided to take a more proactive approach with those (COVID-19) inspections,” Holmes said. “The inspections may or may not be related to a complaint. Our compliance team may decide to do inspections in an area where there is increased virus activity or if we receive a large number of complaints in a particular city or county.”

A spokeswoman for the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals was unable to say Wednesday what enforcement action the department has taken against the food establishments the agency oversees.

In July, the ABD entered into a settlement agreement with John Archer, the owner of Kelly O’Shea’s Shamrock Pub and Grille in Burlington. The division had alleged that the tavern violated Reynolds’ March 17 proclamation that ordered all restaurants and bars closed to the public except for carry-out, drive-through and delivery sales.

According to the ABD, four hours after that order took effect, the Burlington police chief and another city police officer went to the Shamrock in response to a complaint and saw roughly 20 customers inside the bar. They informed Archer of the governor’s order and asked him to stop serving customers.

Court records indicate Archer told the police chief he wasn’t going to comply with the governor’s proclamation and would remain open for business.

Four hours later, the police chief returned to the bar and saw the staff was continuing to serve customers who were eating and drinking on the premises. Archer was issued a citation for a misdemeanor violation of a public health order. He pleaded guilty to the charge Wednesday.

As part of his settlement agreement with the ABD, Archer has agreed to a 21-day suspension of his liquor license.

Last week, ABD alleged that Dingus’ Lounge in Knoxville knowingly violated the governor’s July 24 proclamation that ordered all restaurants and bars to comply with COVID-19 mitigation efforts. On Aug. 13, the tavern allegedly failed to maintain at least six feet of physical distance between groups of patrons or failed to ensure that all patrons had a seat at a table or bar. That case has yet to be resolved.

A similar case has been initiated against the Boji Nites Gentlemen’s Club in Arnolds Park, which is accused of violating the governor’s July 24 proclamation on Aug. 8.

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

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing.