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Tampa Bay bars and restaurants feel sting of coronavirus enforcement

St. Petersburg has issued 200 citations against businesses, mostly bars and restaurants, who flout local coronavirus rules.
Five Bucks Drinkery has been cited four times by St. Petersburg officials for flouting local coronavirus rules. Only Five Bucks' neighbor, Ringside Cafe, with its five violations, has been cited more.
Five Bucks Drinkery has been cited four times by St. Petersburg officials for flouting local coronavirus rules. Only Five Bucks' neighbor, Ringside Cafe, with its five violations, has been cited more. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published Dec. 19, 2020

Restaurants and bars in the Tampa Bay area are caught in a showdown between local and state government, and some are paying the price.

In September, Gov. Ron DeSantis told the businesses they could open without restrictions. He said they were best positioned to keep their customers safe from the coronavirus, not government.

But according to local officials, some businesses aren’t meeting that standard. Leaders across the Tampa Bay area announced Thursday they are coming down hard on violators — primarily bars and restaurants — slapping them with ordinance violations for flouting local rules regarding masks and social distancing.

Related: Tampa Bay leaders to enforce coronavirus restrictions

The top violator in St. Petersburg — with five citations since the city began issuing them in June — is Ringside Cafe on the Jannus Landing block downtown.

“It’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to regulate adult behavior on a minute-to-minute basis,” said its owner, Greg Pugh. “We do follow all the procedures. But to keep on top of it, you literally have to police everybody all the time. And we even hired extra security to take care of this problem.”

Such is the situation that businesses have found themselves in since DeSantis’ September order rendered municipalities powerless to enforce local rules like mask mandates and distancing requirements — measures that health experts say are effective in slowing the spread of the coronavirus — against individuals. But he left them free to enforce the rules against businesses.

Desperate to fight the trend of rising cases, local leaders have resorted to the only tool DeSantis left for them: citations and fines.

No city in the region has been more active in issuing citations as St. Petersburg, which has written 200 against businesses since June. Some have gone to gas stations and tire shops, super markets and salons, gyms and cell phone stores. Most businesses don’t receive more than one.

But the majority of the citations have gone to bars and restaurants. The city’s most prolific offenders are some of the city’s hottest downtown night spots. St. Petersburg fines $100 for the first violation, $250 for the second and $500 for all subsequent violations.

Tampa officials issued four citations later Thursday night after Mayor Jane Castor promised to begin enforcing Hillsborough County’s ordinance. MacDintons, King Corona Cigars, Ybor Cigars Plus and the Purple Heart Bar Lounge & Grill were all hit.

Tony Daniels, owner of Purple Heart in Ybor, said someone at the bar wasn’t fully covering their face with a mask, which was the reason for the citation. He wasn’t there at the time and doesn’t know if it was a staff member or patron. He said he agrees that his bar deserved the $150 citation.

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”From here on forward, we’ll make sure all staff and patrons have their masks on and fully covering their face,” Daniels said.

MacDinton’s in SoHo and King Corona in Ybor City didn’t respond to requests for comment. The owner of Ybor Cigars Plus, also in Ybor City, declined comment.

Only one other Hillsborough business has been cited since Oct. 1, according to that county’s sheriff’s office and county records. County code enforcement officers cited the Dallas Bull, a popular venue for live country music, for a Dec. 11 indoor concert which “failed to enforce proper social distancing or the wearing of face coverings for customers or staff,” according to the citation. The Facebook page for the Dallas Bull, located on U.S. Highway 301, shows the club was host to a concert that night by Mitchell Tenpenny. General manager Ric Yambura declined comment.

In St. Petersburg, after Ringside, Yard of Ale, Courigan’s Irish Pub and Five Bucks Drinkery — all downtown bars — have received the most citations, four each, according to city records.

Managers at Courigan’s and Five Bucks did not return requests for comment. Calls to Yard of Ale went unreturned.

Peter Boland is a co-owner in the Galley, which has received three ordinance violations from St. Petersburg code enforcers, and Mary Margaret’s Olde Irish Tavern, which has received one. He said bars and restaurants “are being singled out and blamed for this.”

“Everyone’s doing the best we can,” he said, “and we’re being asked to do more than we’re capable of doing.”

“If they want us to come and enforce this all the time, we’re going to need some help to hire more people,” said Boland, who added that he already staffs 21 people on a typical Friday night and that his margins, normally razor thin, have disappeared. Nevertheless, he said he’s paid to install air purification systems in his bars.

He said he’d prefer customers to “vote with their dollars” and patronize businesses that make them feel safe.

James Corbett, St. Petersburg’s director of codes compliance assistance, said he’s sensitive to the demands being placed on businesses, particularly on restaurants and bars that had their operations restricted.

“All of that is on the front of my mind,” said Corbett, whose department issues the citations, “but also on the front of my mind is that the numbers are rising.”

Corbett said he visited Ringside the night of Dec. 11, a Friday, and it was “shoulder to shoulder,” with a live band and people dancing. He said a manager promised to take care of it. But when Corbett returned Saturday, it was a similar scene. He issued the bar citations for both nights, the business’ fourth and fifth.

“That’s the kind of stuff that’s very frustrating,” he said. “And if anything, I think the other bar owners who are trying to operate responsibly… should say ‘Hey, that’s hurting everyone.’”

Ordinance violations come with fines that increase with each subsequent violation. Corbett said St. Petersburg officials are considering other options for repeat offenders, like the suspension of a business’s late-night operating or sidewalk cafe permits. Corbett said suspending a business’s right to outdoor seating, which would drive people inside, would be a last resort.

“None of it would happen if you just comply,” he said.

DeSantis’ office did not respond to requests for comment.

The step up in enforcement is in reaction to a troubling third-wave of cases that comes even as news of the first dosages of vaccine being administered this week has buoyed optimism. The state has reported an average of 10,727 cases and 102 deaths per day this week. It will still be months before the majority of the population has access to the vaccine, meaning the virus, which has accounted for more than 300,000 deaths nationwide, will remain a threat.

Times staff writers C.T. Bowen, Charlie Frago, Barbara Behrendt and Tracey McManus contributed to this report.

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