Judge rules against Iowa bar accused of ‘staging’ virus-mitigation measures

An Iowa tavern allegedly “staged” an array COVID-19 mitigation measures for the benefit of state regulators. (Creative Commons photo via Pxhere)

A manager who resigned from an Iowa tavern that allegedly “staged” an array of COVID-19 mitigation measures for the benefit of state regulators is entitled to collect unemployment benefits, a judge has ruled.

State records indicate that when the COVID-19 pandemic struck last spring, the After Hour Shop, a bar and grill in Truesdale, seven miles north of Storm Lake, closed its doors for about four months.

An administrative law judge would later find that when the bar reopened on July 25, owner Kevin Kruse opted not to require his employees to wear masks or use hand sanitizer, and did not block off tables to allow for social distancing between customers.

Aware of the governor’s proclamations requiring such measures, bar manager Angela Gaskins asked Kruse several times to require masks, or to at least make them available to the staff, and to space out the tables, but he allegedly refused. The establishment was reportedly operating at full capacity most nights, and in late September 2020, Kruse’s partner notified Gaskins the bar had been contacted by the Iowa Alcoholic Beverages Division, which was attempting to ensure the After Hour Shop was complying with the mandated safety measures.

Kruse’s partner allegedly told Gaskins to order a supply of masks and hand sanitizer, and had her tape off tables that couldn’t be used due to the social-distancing requirements. Gaskins ordered the supplies and set up the bar to conform to the governor’s social-distancing requirements, then took photographs to send to the Alcoholic Beverages Division to demonstrate compliance.

But when she asked Kruse whether the tables would remain taped off, and whether the hand sanitizer would remain on the open tables, Kruse allegedly said no and told her to remove everything.

According to the judge’s ruling, Kruse told Gaskins he might as well close the business if he was going to follow the state’s guidelines. A few weeks later, the bar’s full-time bartender and a cook’s son tested positive for COVID-19. Gaskins then resigned and applied for unemployment benefits, which Kruse challenged. Administrative Law Judge Stephanie Adkisson heard testimony in the case from both Kruse and Gaskins.

Adkisson recently ruled in favor of Gaskins, stating that while she had voluntarily quit her job, she did so because of Kruse’s “failure to implement policies and protocols to protect employees from COVID-19.” Adkission ruled that a “reasonable person” would have believed that Gaskin’s  working conditions were unsafe and detrimental.

Kruse told the Iowa Capital Dispatch he can’t recall what he testified to during the March 26 hearing, but said he never blocked his manager’s efforts to comply with the governor’s proclamations. He acknowledged he hadn’t taped off any tables, put out hand sanitizer or required employees to wear masks, but said that was because “we weren’t all that busy” at the time.

He said his former manager is “full of s—,” and the judge who ruled against him in the unemployment case could be a “liberal judge” with her own agenda.

“I think this whole COVID thing was blown out of proportion for no worse than what it was,” Kruse said. “To me, this virus was not scientifically identified and the media just ran off with it like they did. People that would have had it — it would have been no different than having a bad case of the flu. And that is the common consensus of everybody that has come into this place throughout this whole last year.”

To date, 386,451 Iowans have been infected with the virus, and 5,857 Iowans have died as a result, according to the Iowa Department of Public Health.

The Alcoholic Beverages Division has not taken any public action against the After Hour Shop, according to the agency’s website.