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Anne Arundel executive invited media to Cancun Cantina inspection as a warning to businesses

Anne Arundel County officials publicized the scheduled health inspection at Cancun Cantina on Saturday night to deter other establishments from skirting COVID-19 restrictions as infections drop and restrictions are eased.

County Executive Steuart Pittman received several complaints from residents about the club to his government email account, he said, after a local ’90s tribute band, Doc Marten and the Flannels, played a show on Feb. 20, and people posted videos of the crowded bar to Facebook.

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Upon learning the health department had already scheduled an inspection on Saturday, the county executive suggested health officials invite the news media, including The Capital.

“It just kind of hit me that, do people think because we’re relaxing restrictions that this thing is over, and the governor’s orders don’t apply?” Pittman said.

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Since the county began enforcing pandemic-related restrictions in July, Anne Arundel health inspectors have cited 253 businesses for mask violations, lack of social distancing and overcrowding, among other things. Some, such as the Pennsylvania Dutch Farmers Market in Annapolis and Cindy’s Hot Shot shooting range in Glen Burnie, have received more than four citations.

November and December saw the most citations issued, 61 and 52 respectively, and February the fewest, just 13.

Craig and Kristen Foster, who purchased Cancun Cantina in February 2020, passed several inspections prior to Saturday night and said in an interview they’d done their best to comply with the changing restrictions.

Inspectors for the liquor board and health department came into the club to help them space out tables and properly place stickers on the floor to show patrons where to stand when waiting in lines.

“This isn’t a bad thing,” Craig Foster said. “You get inspected. They tell you what’s wrong; you fix it.”

Both the health department and Board of License Commissioners inspected Cancun Cantina before Saturday. The club passed all but one when a hostess had her mask down while seated. The Fosters said they knew about the complaints from patrons and other businesses but they’d never seen the complaints themselves, nor had patrons approached staff or management to complain about safety inside the club.

The owners said they told inspectors in the past to come anytime, even considering inviting media themselves.

“But to have it almost set up to be like, ‘Hey, we know they’re in violation. Come check it out,’” Kristen Foster said. “They’re not doing that to the other businesses.”

The health department and the county liquor board split up enforcement of the pandemic restrictions. Any business that has a liquor license is under the purview of the liquor board, chief inspector Wayne Harris said.

Though it has the authority to, the health department has not fined businesses since the pandemic began, said Don Curtian, director of the county environmental health bureau.

“When the enforcement program was started, and as it continues, it’s to educate and gain compliance preventing further spread,” Curtian said.

After the health department issues an order to comply with the pandemic restrictions, the department follows up. If the violations persist, the business must close until management submits a compliance plan to the county.

But the liquor board does issue fines, Harris said, on a tiered schedule depending on the number of violations a business has. The citation Harris gave Cancun Cantina on Saturday night was its first liquor board violation, the fine for which is $500 plus a $100 administrative fee.

On a second offense, a business must pay $750, plus the fee. For a pandemic-related violation, a business can choose to pay the fine or appeal it in front of the board. But a third strike means a mandatory hearing, during which the board can suspend or revoke the business’s license to sell alcohol.

Foodservice establishments in Anne Arundel County are currently allowed to operate at 50% capacity indoors. Outdoor dining is permitted as long as 50% of any tent sides remain up. As of Thursday, food services establishments are recommended but not required to use contact tracing methods.

Pittman relaxed restrictions Thursday, bringing Anne Arundel into alignment with the most liberal permissions of Gov. Larry Hogan, but the county health department has cautioned vigilance as more contagious variants of the coronavirus circulate.

“This pandemic is not over,” Pittman said. “The numbers, they’re leveling right now; they’re not dropping.”

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