Tampa City Council hears more mask order cases, but treads lightly

The council deferred one case until March and found another bar had violated local orders, but declined to suspend its ability to sell booze.
A Tampa code enforcement picture of a crowd at 7th and Grove, an Ybor City bar. The City Council voted Monday that the bar had violated coronavirus restrictions, but took no action on suspending its ability to sell alcohol.
A Tampa code enforcement picture of a crowd at 7th and Grove, an Ybor City bar. The City Council voted Monday that the bar had violated coronavirus restrictions, but took no action on suspending its ability to sell alcohol. [ Charlie Frago ]
Published Feb. 22, 2021|Updated Feb. 23, 2021

TAMPA — City Council members found an Ybor City bar had violated local coronavirus restrictions Monday, but declined to suspend its ability to sell alcohol, a marked departure from last week’s hearing in which two establishments were handed suspensions.

Related: Two Ybor City bars lose ability to sell booze for three days

Council members voted unanimously (with council member Luis Viera absent) to find that 7th and Grove, 1930 E. 7th Ave., had broken Mayor Jane Castor’s executive order mandating the wearing of masks indoors, and a similar county order in December and January.

But council members declined to suspend its alcoholic beverage permit.

The decision came after owners Dr. Jamaris Glenn and Dr. Vondalyn Crawford detailed increased security, outdoor seating and other safety measures put in place and asked council members if other establishments faced the same scrutiny as they had.

“We do question the rest of the city. Are they getting these same visits that we got?” Crawford said.

Code enforcement officers testified that the establishment was crowded and not everyone was wearing a mask when they inspected it twice in December and January, but the citation was for a lack of social distancing.

Later, city attorneys said that the lack of mask wearing among patrons who were not seated was the “crux” of the reason for the citation.

The theme of uneven enforcement also animated another hearing Monday in which the owner of Purple Heart Bar Lounge & Grill, 1811 N. 15th St., said his newly-opened establishment was cited before being properly educated about the local orders.

Keith Norates, the bar’s owner, said he had tried to train his staff and bought 1,000 masks. But he said he was confused by what he said were shifting enforcement priorities.

“First it was everyone must have a mask, then it became everyone must be seated,” Norates said.

Keith O’Connor, the city’s neighborhood engagement manager, said enforcement had recently “evolved” to give officers discretion to warn bar owners if the only violation witnessed was masked customers standing on dance floors instead of issuing a citation.

The local orders state that patrons must be seated and can’t stand at the bar or congregate on dance floors. Customers can only remove their masks if they are seated.

Related: Hillsborough County okays tougher face mask rule

“It’s not a change, it’s an evolution of our checks,” O’Connor said, saying it was up to an officer’s discretion. “Every club is different, every situation is different, depending on the number of patrons, the number of violations.”

When asked for numbers of inspections and violations found clubs in New Tampa, Kennedy Boulevard and other areas of the city, O’Connor said he didn’t have that information immediately available. He said all areas of the city are being checked.

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Council members split 3-3 on whether to find Purple Heart in violation of the city’s code involving public health and sanitation. Council members Charlie Miranda, Joseph Citro and Orlando Gudes found the bar had broken the rules while council members John Dingfelder, Bill Carlson and Guido Maniscalco disagreed.

Viera, who was on his honeymoon, would be the deciding vote. Council members voted to delay any decision until March 4 when Viera would be present.

The local orders carry the force of law because of the statewide declaration of a public health emergency, said senior assistant city attorney Susan Johnson-Velez.

A Hillsborough County Circuit Judge recently ruled that council members did have the power to suspend the ability to sell alcohol for businesses that violate the orders.

Two bars, The Ritz Ybor and Prana Ybor’s Premier Nitespot, were granted delays Monday until the next hearing on March 8, joining MacDinton’s which was granted a continuance last week until that date.

Several speakers during public comment criticized the city’s decision to pursue suspensions of alcohol sales, calling the council hearings a “kangaroo court” and an unfair burden on businesses.

So far, Tampa is the only city, at least locally, to pursue suspending alcohol beverage permits. St. Petersburg has contemplated suspending a business’s late-night operating or sidewalk cafe permits.

St. Petersburg officials didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment Monday if they have pursued those penalties.

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