Who’s in charge of making sure Charlotte businesses follow coronavirus restrictions?

Who’s in charge of making sure Charlotte businesses follow coronavirus restrictions?
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This story was last updated at 10:40 a.m. on Monday, July 20.

It seems like every weekend that passes, another video surfaces showing late-night revelers packed into Charlotte restaurants and bars. Meanwhile, health officials continue to warn that young people make up a growing number of coronavirus cases.

And yet, there’s a collective shrug when the question arises: What’s there to do about enforcing rules like mask-wearing and social distancing and non-essential business closures — all measures that aim to curb the spread of coronavirus? And how are some businesses skirting the rules?

Two months ago, Governor Roy Cooper gave the go-ahead to reopen with a limited capacity for restaurants, breweries, wineries, and bars that serve food. But that’s somehow opened the floodgates for similar businesses. Over the last month, bars, gyms, and clubs have been reopening, too, although they’re supposed to remain closed until the end of phase two, which goes until at least August 7.

Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department has not cited any businesses for violating the statewide mask mandate or for any Phase 2 violations, according to the department.

“CMPD will continue to work towards voluntary compliance with each member of the community through education and conversations, only resorting to enforcement as a last-measure,” CMPD public affairs officer Blake Page said in an email.

“This has been the CMPD’s approach to consistent enforcement of the orders, and it will remain so until the orders are rescinded.”

cocktails at idlewild in noda charlotte

Cocktails at Idlewild/Agenda archive photo. 

Mecklenburg County’s latest push to control the pandemic locally comes in the form of banning alcohol after 10 p.m. at area restaurants. But the measure leaves some wondering: Does this restriction have any teeth?

In other words, who is actually going to enforce it?

The county’s alcohol ban, which local cities still have to sign, aims to address coronavirus spread among young people out late at night. Orange County (NC) and South Carolina have similar restrictions in place.

[Related Agenda story: County officials will implement a late-night alcohol sales ban. Here’s how it could work]

District 5 county commissioner Susan Harden is among the skeptics of this and other efforts to control the pandemic. In a Facebook post this week, Harden tore into the failures of local officials’ coronavirus response.

North Carolina reopened too early, Harden said, and has been too slow with both its marketing campaign and its mask mandate. On top of that, there’s no enforcement mechanism for the restrictions on businesses, she said.

“We know there are gyms operating. We know there are restaurants that are acting like bars. We know that people are gathering beyond the limits. There’s zero enforcement,” Harden told the Agenda.

She continued, adding that businesses break the rules all the time because they know they can.

“If you’re not worried about getting pulled over on the interstate and you’re late to a meeting, you’re going to go 90 miles an hour. You just are. It’s human behavior.”

There should be a local enforcement method in place for coronavirus restrictions before officials put them into place, Harden said. For instance, the health department, which the county is in charge of, oversees responsibilities like restaurant inspections.

County officials have asked their attorney if they can require the health department to police businesses for coronavirus-related coronavirus violations. The attorney said no, Harden said.

“This whole passing of the buck of enforcement is not working,” Harden said. “It’s like a hot potato.”

Oversight of the alcohol ban could partially fall to the state’s Alcohol Law Enforcement. That’s the group that visited Sycamore Brewing over its humping reindeer beer cans last winter. ALE ended up fining Sycamore $1,000. 

“If a local municipality decides to further restrict the Governor’s Executive Orders, ALE will assist and support local law enforcement, as well as the ABC Commission, but will not criminally or administratively cite for county or city-specific orders,” ALE special agent Erin Bean said in an email. ALE has not charged any businesses in Orange County for violating the order, she added.

In an email last week to CMPD and the city manager’s office, mayor pro tem Julie Eiselt said must be stronger enforcement of violations of pandemic restrictions.

Eiselt asked if CMPD or code enforcement had issued any citations against any violators, and whether anyone has been out to address the complaints the city has heard. She also asked if anyone has been out to see whether certain venues like clubs really get 30 percent of their revenue from food. That’s the rationale many establishments are using to remain open during phase two.

“As it pertains to the COVID restrictions, these crowded nightclubs and bars are big contributors to dragging this virus out and making the rest of us suffer the economic and health effects. Let’s take decisive action against the flagrant violators and send a strong message,” Eiselt wrote.

As of the morning if July 20, Eiselt had received no reply about her concerns.

ink n ivy

Ink N Ivy.

Recent videos and pictures circulating on social media show establishments including Ink N Ivy, Explict, and Peculiar Rabbit hosting large, packed-in groups.

In an email Tuesday, Explict’s owners said they’re continuing to learn and improve upon coronavirus safety. The bistro and lounge does serve food, so it is allowed to open under state guidelines.

But like other area bars, Explict has allowed customers without masks to stand and dance close together during weekend parties.

Events like Day Dream | Rooftop Brunch & Day Party — which calls itself the No. 1 rooftop brunch and day party of the year — have been advertising at Peculiar Rabbit. The restaurant/bar closed to the public in January but remains open for private parties. Another, Mansion Thursday Nights has been canceled, according to Peculiar Rabbit owner Rob Nixon.

Nixon said Peculiar Rabbit is not currently open, and previously has only been open on the weekends.

“People will be sadly disappointed … if they come to Peculiar Rabbit because the doors will be locked all weekend and I assume for the foreseeable future,” Nixon said.

On June 12, during the protests over police brutality following the death of George Floyd, WFAE reporter David Boraks snapped a photo of a line patrons formed in front of Brickyard in South End. The bouncer, wearing a Brickyard T-shirt, appears to be taking the temperature of the young man at the front of the line.


The Brickyard in South End on June 12 (courtesy of David Boraks/WFAE)

Responding to a question about how Brickyard is allowed to remain open, since it is not a restaurant, Brickyard owner Anthony Cardone denied that the bar has been open at all.

“Brickyard is not open, has not recently been open and does not plan to open until the governor gives the ok!” Cardone said. He did not respond to additional requests for comment.

The recent packing into bars in Charlotte comes as local and state leaders continue to emphasize how the virus spreading among younger populations, driving up key metrics and putting vulnerable populations in danger.

In Mecklenburg County and around the state, coronavirus cases and hospitalizations continue to rise. As of Thursday, 1,134 Covid-19 patients were hospitalized in North Carolina. During the last week in Mecklenburg County, 175 people were in the hospital because of Covid-19, and that number has been steadily rising.

Considering that bars and restaurants closed for such a long period of time, straining their profitability, it’s not hard to understand why businesses would at least try to operate normally if they can.

But, Harden says, the onus of cracking down on state or county mandates like mask wearing and social distancing shouldn’t be on the business.

When businesses try to act as enforcement directly with customers, it can turn customers off. Or worse.

In a recent study of McDonald’s employees, 44 percent of respondents said customers had verbally or physically assaulted them after the employee confronted those who weren’t wearing masks, Business Insider wrote this week.

“I think it’s profoundly unfair to put that on businesses at this time,” Harden said.

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