DeWine: Enforcement Coming on Restaurant Safety Rules

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – By and large, Gov. Mike DeWine said, bars and restaurants largely adhered to the guidelines set forth by the state for reopening over the weekend. 

But not all venues followed the required social distancing guidelines, limiting groups to 10 people or fewer with at least six feet between each group. Pictures circulated around the internet of patios packed with patrons. 

To ensure that all bars and restaurants follow the guidelines, DeWine announced the creation of a group comprised of state health officials and law enforcement. The group will be led by the state’s Department of Public Safety Ohio Investigative Unit, working with local health departments. 

Among the potential penalties are administrative citations that could lead to the revocation of liquor licenses and, if local prosecutors agree, bring criminal charges.

“When we look at how our restaurants and bars operate, the distance is the key thing. As we got reports – and we still get them from health departments all over the state – over the weekend, it was clear most did an amazingly good job. But it’s clear we’ve had some outliers, ones who were not doing what they should do,” DeWine said. “People have to feel safe. They have to feel the rules are being followed when they go to restaurant, to a bar.”

Citations were issued by local health departments over the weekend, DeWine said, including eight in Columbus. Those were not issued as part of the new enforcement program.  

“We saw in some places, customers not following the rules and the people running the bar weren’t taking responsibility,” he said. “Both have to do that. The owner and people running the bar have an obligation to control the environment. If they can not control the environment, they should make the wise judgement not to open. If they’re in a situation where they can’t control it, they should close.”

He also kept the door open on issuing citations to individuals at bars and restaurants that are not observing proper safety and distancing guidelines.

“We wouldn’t rule that out at all. We’re all going through a learning process. It’s nice outside. People want to get out. They haven’t had the opportunity to go to restaurant or bar. There’s nothing wrong with that at all,” DeWine said. “This virus is still here. The facts have simply not changed. If we’re going to reopen the economy and get Ohioans back to work, we have to do in a responsible way that keeps people safe. If we go off the rails and aren’t keeping people safe and we that see [the rate of transmission] creep up above 1, alarm bells need to go off. We’ll do what we need to do to protect Ohioans. We won’t let this surge.”

The group currently has 70 members, DeWine said, but has not yet expanded for the new enforcement measures.

Lt. Gov. Jon Husted added that such enforcement would be “the last straw.”

“None of us want to get to that. But if you won’t comply and keep people safe, then there has to be enforcement,” he said. “It’s for the businesses and it’s for the customers who do want to support those business owners. But we need to do this safely. That’s why those procedures put in place. … There must be seat for every patron and every congregate area must be closed. If you can’t do this – you’re accountable for this – then you cannot open.” 

DeWine re-read the order signed by Dr. Amy Acton, director of the Ohio Department of Health, that lays out what measures bars and restaurants must take in order to reopen.

“Business and operations shall continue to comply with the social distancing guidelines as defined in this order, including by employing six-foot social distancing for both employees and members of the public at all times, including customers standing in line,” DeWine read. “Reservations are to be limited to no more than 10 people. Customers must be seated when consuming food, beer, wine or liquor on the premises.”

The state’s guidelines for safe restaurant operations and best practices can be read here.

DeWine said he would consider reimposing safety measures if the state were to see a spike in cases, adding that local health departments can implement stricter measures than the state mandate requires.

The governor and lieutenant governor also reiterated that the state has not ordered churches closed or limited hospital visitations. Those decisions, both said, fall to the individual organization.

“We know these are tough situations when hospitals are trying to deal with COVID and stop the spread. Loved ones want to see loved ones. We have no rules, the state hasn’t issued any rule and Dr. Acton hasn’t issued any rule  against visitation. These rules are set by individual hospitals,” DeWine said. “They’re making these decision based on what they think is best.”

Following the announcement that gyms can reopen May 26, Husted said he has met with the Ohio High School Athletic Association to work on resuming practices for school-sanctioned sports. 

“For the athletes out there, we know that training is a year-round process. We know that having properly trained folks isn’t just about excelling, but to lower the risk of injuries,” he said. “We don’t know what school in the fall will hold, but we do know that for non-contact spring activities – and even those that are contact – have ways to train that are safe. We want to keep the future in mind.”

Copyright 2020 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.