The state agency that helps oversee Iowa restaurants has fielded almost 1,000 complaints about COVID-19 mitigation efforts in dining establishments, but has issued only one warning.
The Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals says it has received a total of 962 complaints related to restaurants’ COVID-19 mitigation efforts. To date, the agency’s only enforcement action has been to issue one warning to a defiant deli owner who says he told inspectors he wasn’t “going to play ball” with them or follow the governor’s orders on COVID-19 mitigation.
One reason for the overall lack of enforcement by DIA is that the agency shares COVID-related complaints about the restaurants that have liquor licenses with the Iowa Alcoholic Beverages Division, which is tasked with following up on those cases. Also, DIA doesn’t have the authority to issue citations or impose fines for even the most egregious public-health violations. By law, the department can only issue warnings, suspend food licenses and revoke food licenses.
According to DIA, 689 COVID-related complaints, or roughly five complaints per day, were made with the agency before July 30. That’s when DIA announced 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 restaurants.
Since the July 30 announcement, there have been 273 COVID-related complaints made to DIA about restaurants, an average of almost six complaints per day.
The one warning that was issued by the department was directed to the Classic Deli & Ice Cream Shoppe in Brooklyn, a town of 1,400 people that’s 50 miles east of Des Moines. According to DIA, customers of the deli were being allowed to congregate without the required social distancing.
Owner Jason Jasnos says he initially told a DIA inspector he had no intention of complying with the governor’s order.
“If she really wanted to, she could have, you know, just sealed the deal and shut us down for a week and frankly I was looking forward to that because I was f—ing tired,” Jasnos said. “I was like, you know, ‘What do you want me to do? I’ve got just so many tables and this is what I’ve got and I’m not going to stop people from talking to each other.’ I said, ‘You know, you can go ahead and shut me down.’ And so actually they gave me that warning when I told them I wasn’t going to play ball with them.”
Jasnos said when customers come into his deli, they do so not just to eat but to socialize with others in town. He said people in Brooklyn are “up in arms” about social-distancing requirements and recommendations for masks, and he specifically told his customers they could congregate in the shop regardless of the governor’s orders.
“I go, ‘Look, you guys know each other and I’m not going to stop you guys from interacting with each other because this is a small town and this is kind of where you socialize.’ I trust that people can make their own decisions because everybody here is — well, we’re all adults and capable of making conscious decisions knowing the circumstances, right? So, anyway, I gave everybody that leniency and everything was fine. And when the inspector came in, I just told them, ‘Look, I can’t do anything about this. I’ll just simply shut it down because I am not going to try to enforce this.’ ”
Jasnos said he has since decided to comply with the governor’s social-distancing requirements by eliminating some tables and spreading those that remain around the establishment. “I’ve complied,” he said. “I just don’t want to get shut down.”
The warning from DIA was sent to Jasnos in the form of an Aug. 14 email. It stated, “If additional violations are observed, this may result in a seven-day suspension of the food license, or the revocation of your food license.”
DIA conducts food inspections for 63 of Iowa’s 99 counties and, for the remaining 36 counties, it contracts with local public health departments to perform that work.
The governor’s proclamations pertaining to restaurants 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.
The Iowa Capital Dispatch recently reported that complaints from Iowans about bars and restaurants with liquor licenses failing to impose COVID-19 mitigation measures have increased five-fold in recent weeks.
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.
Unlike DIA, the Alcoholic Beverages Division can impose fines and it has warned businesses with a liquor license they could face a $1,000 fine 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.
At this point, the division has a dozen open cases that could result in action against the license holders.
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. As part of his settlement agreement with the ABD, Archer has agreed to a 21-day suspension of his liquor license.
The division has also 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. 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.