Over the course of a week, Baltimore City health officials stepped in twice to close down a pair of popular Federal Hill bars for coronavirus violations.
The neighboring bars — The Charles and Banditos Bar and Kitchen — were closed the day after Halloween over concerns that they didn’t properly enforce mask-wearing and social distancing rules. They were back open a day later. Then they were closed again Friday, then open by Saturday afternoon.
The tug-of-war is emblematic of growing tension between local health officials and the businesses they regulate, and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan has put his finger on the scale.
During a news conference Thursday, as the coronavirus pandemic continued to surge in Maryland, Hogan called on local leaders to “step up” enforcement efforts. He reiterated those remarks Tuesday, saying “too many businesses are failing to comply with the state regulations.”
“Sadly, as a result, the virus has returned to our state in a big way,” said the Republican, even as he praised Baltimore City and Anne Arundel County for their efforts.
But, as the whiplash of activity surrounding Banditos and The Charles illustrates, the enforcement process can involve a complicated balancing act for officials, who say their goal is to educate businesses, not just penalize them.
The bars' swift reopenings have prompted some questions from locals, who wonder if the city’s enforcement efforts are doing enough to keep problematic business practices in check, especially as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations increase. For the bars, the challenge is navigating a confusing tangle of regulators — liquor boards, fire marshals, police officers and health inspectors, to name a few — in addition to drunken customers who may flout coronavirus rules.
In Baltimore City, health officials have temporarily shuttered seven restaurants, three of them more than once. Most reopened within a few days. The city’s liquor board has doled out nearly $4,000 in fines. Most establishments faced fines amounting to a few hundred dollars.
In Baltimore County, officials have temporarily closed a few establishments, and issued small fines to about 20 so far through the liquor board. In Howard County, health department officials haven’t closed or formally cited any establishments. In Carroll County, officials haven’t closed any establishments either, although they’ve issued warnings. In Anne Arundel County, officials have cited more than 100 businesses for COVID-19 violations, and temporarily closed a few.
A Harford County spokesperson did not respond to inquiries from The Baltimore Sun about how many businesses had been cited.
While applauding Baltimore City and Anne Arundel County for steps local officials there have taken to enforce the law, Hogan lamented Tuesday that other jurisdictions were dropping the ball.
He warned that violators could face fines, lose their liquor licenses or even go to jail, and promised further steps if needed. He also tightened indoor capacity restrictions on restaurants, moving from 75% back to 50%.
Restaurant advocates support the relatively gentle treatment, saying these businesses already have suffered enough amid the closures of 2020.
One problem, some say, is a lack of consistent messaging. Particularly in smaller counties, businesses may hear one rule from a local official and another thing from their health department, said Mike Ricci, a spokesman for Hogan. In an email, he wrote that he had heard about “disconnects between local sheriffs and local health officers; or between local leaders and local health officers.”
Dave Rather, who owns Mother’s Grille restaurants in Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Anne Arundel County, said it’s been difficult for him to keep the different restrictions in each jurisdiction straight. The city has on several occasions set stricter coronavirus restrictions than elsewhere in the state. This Thursday, for instance, the city is moving restaurants back to 25% capacity and mandating that indoor dining stop at 11 p.m. It’s also shutting down bars that do not serve food.
In Baltimore, Rather said, enforcement feels inconsistent — with visits from inspectors from the liquor board, fire marshal and health department, each looking for something different.
“We haven’t gotten enough direction,” he said.
Servers and bartenders are in a difficult position, he said, unaccustomed to enforcing mask-wearing on crowds that may be either stubborn or intoxicated.
“Some people are just drunk and they don’t want to follow the rules," Rather said.
Enforcement is just one of several tools states and localities should use to fight the virus — and it should be used as a last resort — said Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, vice dean for public health practice at Johns Hopkins University and former head of the state and city health departments. Governments should be focusing on education efforts and on providing financial aid to the most heavily impacted businesses, he said, so that they can approach COVID-19 with extra caution and still stay afloat.
“The goal is really not to need to do enforcement,” he said. “The goal is to have people understand the purpose and follow the rules.”
It makes sense, he said, that city inspectors said they visited Banditos and The Charles on Saturday night and flagged the violations, but didn’t actually shut down either establishment until Sunday, when they say they returned and noticed the same issues with social distancing and mask-wearing.
“The idea of giving people warning, a chance to fix things, is a good one,” Sharfstein said.
Stephan Fogleman, a lawyer who recently represented several cited establishments before the liquor board, said the officials' gentle approach has been helpful for his clients.
“It was a godsend that the liquor board was, in my opinion, one of the first agencies in the city to publicly acknowledge what a horrible, terrible year 2020 has shaped up to be for the very people that they regulate,” said Fogleman, who is also a former chairman of the board.
But among locals, concerns have mounted that more bustling bars in Federal Hill and other parts of the city haven’t been cited by the liquor board or shut down by the health department.
When 24-year-old Brandon Carroll, a Canton resident, drove through Federal Hill on the evening of Oct. 30 on his way to pick up some pizza, he was astounded by the crowds huddled outside bars on South Charles Street.
“You would think that there’s no virus,” Carroll said.
But officials can’t camp out in front of problematic bars 24/7, Fogleman said. Often, they go where 311 complaints from residents lead them.
“The squeaky wheel has always gotten the grease — in this city and every other community,” Fogleman said. “It’s not always fair. And sometimes it’s one person with an axe to grind. But when the complaints continue to pile up, there is a natural tendency for our government to want to fix what is perceived as a problem."
Pete Prevas, a lawyer representing both The Charles and Banditos, said his clients feel that system is unfair.
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Inspectors “only react to complaints,” Prevas said. “So if you have a disgruntled neighbor or competitor, you’re getting inspected, and somebody that’s running Fort Lauderdale spring break is getting off scot-free.”
Prevas acknowledged the bars' struggles with unmasked customers and social distancing requirements, saying they’ve grappled with retraining customers who are inclined to walk up to the bar and order their drinks.
“It’s not that we did nothing wrong," he said. “We have no animus. We take the COVID requirements very seriously. The frustrating part with both of these locations is that we found out that inspections are only complaint driven.”
The Charles was the subject of complaints on Oct. 4, 10 and 12 and Banditos received a complaint Sept. 23, said Adam Abadir, spokesman for the health department, in a statement.
Late-night inspections are conducted by the city’s Social Club Task Force, which includes representatives from the fire department, police department, housing department and health department. Those inspections take place every weekend, and citizen complaints factor into which establishments are inspected, Abadir said.
Fogleman said that to a certain degree, businesses police themselves — or rather, their customers do — through social media. Few businesses want to be branded as playing fast and loose with coronavirus regulations.
“That’s a horrible badge of shame,” Fogleman said. “And they don’t want that. In the age of cancel culture, somebody who’s accused of not caring about COVID-19, by extension, is accused of not caring about their customers, or the general public at all.”