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Many complaints, 2 actions taken in COVID crackdown

DES MOINES — Two state agencies said they would crack down on restaurants and bars not complying with social distancing orders amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Hundreds of complaints have been filed, but a month later, only two actions have been taken and one warning issued.

The state Alcoholic Beverages Division and Department of Inspections and Appeals on July 30 announced their intention to issue fines and license suspensions in order to enforce social distancing requirements in bars and restaurants during the pandemic.

Under Gov. Kim Reynolds’ public health disaster proclamation, bars and restaurants must ensure at least 6 feet of physical distance between each group or individual drinking or eating alone, and all patrons must be seated.

For first offenses, businesses with an alcohol license could be fined $1,000 by the state Alcoholic Beverages Division, and restaurants may be issued a warning by the state Department of Inspections and Appeals. A second offense would result in a seven-day suspension of a business’ alcohol or food license; a third offense will result in the business losing that license.

The Alcoholic Beverages Division, which provides oversight of bars and other venues that sell alcohol, has received 354 pandemic-related complaints.

The division has opened 12 investigations and taken two actions, against Boji Nites, an adult entertainment club in Arnolds Park, and Dingus Lounge, a bar in Knoxville, both for failing to adhere to social distancing requirements. The penalties have not yet been determined.

In that same time, the Department of Inspections and Appeals has received 154 pandemic-related complaints. It has issued a solitary warning, to Classic Deli and Ice Cream Shoppe in Brooklyn, for a first offense. That warning was the result of a routine inspection, not a complaint, a department spokesperson.

The department does not levy fines; it can only revoke or suspend licenses to sell food. It has done neither.

A spokesman for the Alcoholic Beverages Division said the process of opening a case, completing an investigation and submitting a report to the administrative actions unit can be time-consuming and varies “quite a bit.”

“As the regulator of the alcohol industry in the state, the ABD must protect the health, welfare, and safety of the citizens of Iowa,” division director Stephen Larson wrote in a recent op-ed. “Enforcing proclamation requirements … protects Iowans.”

The Alcoholic Beverages Division has taken one other pandemic-related action: in March, Kelly O’Shea’s Shamrock Pub and Grille in Burlington had its alcohol license revoked for three weeks after it had remained open during a period when the governor had ordered all bars and restaurants closed.

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