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St. Petersburg bars that broke mask order say it can’t be enforced

Knight Global Entertainment, which owns Jannus Live, MacDinton’s Irish Pub and other bars, argues Mayor Rick Kirseman’s pandemic orders are unenforceable.
This image provided by Pinellas County officials shows a crowd of people that officials say gathered inside Ringside Cafe in St. Petersburg on June 13, 2020 despite pandemic restrictions.
This image provided by Pinellas County officials shows a crowd of people that officials say gathered inside Ringside Cafe in St. Petersburg on June 13, 2020 despite pandemic restrictions. [ Pinellas County ]
Published Feb. 5

ST. PETERSBURG — The company behind several popular downtown bars and venues argues in a lawsuit that Mayor Rick Kriseman’s order requiring the wearing of masks can’t be enforced by county courts.

The suit says the mayor’s executive order isn’t a city ordinance and cannot be enforced as such. That order is the basis for more than a dozen citations the businesses received after the city says employees were caught failing to wear masks and enforce social distancing.

Knight Global Entertainment — which owns establishments such as Jannus Live, MacDinton’s Irish Pub, Pelican Pub and Ringside Cafe — laid out that argument in a Jan. 21 petition. It is asking a judge to halt county court proceedings in one of the 13 citations that Knight Global Entertainment’s subsidiaries have received since October.

The suit also characterized the city’s mask order, which mirrors a Pinellas County ordinance and requires restaurant and bar workers to wear face coverings at all times, as “unreasonable” — though it doesn’t elaborate on that legal argument. And it said the city has threatened to revoke the permits that allows those establishments to operate after midnight, a move the petition says would be “the proverbial death knell” for the company.

The petition does not include any documentation showing St. Petersburg threatened to take away the company’s extended hours permit. Attorneys at Weber, Crabb & Wein, the St. Petersburg firm representing Knight Global, were not available for comment Thursday or Friday. A city spokesman declined to comment.

At the heart of the dispute is an executive order Kriseman issued in June 2020 as coronavirus cases spiked while Gov. Ron DeSantis pushed forward a plan to reopen the economy. Two days before Kriseman’s order, the Pinellas County Commission approved a county ordinance that laid out mask and social-distancing rules and penalties for businesses: citations of $100 for a first violation, $250 for a second and $500 for subsequent ones.

Kriseman’s executive order declared the city would adopt the same rules, and that violating them would result in citations.

Knight Global’s petition argues that Kriseman can’t create an ordinance on his own — only the St. Petersburg City Council can — and that county courts, where the city’s citations are adjudicated, don’t have jurisdiction over executive orders.

Copies of the citations included in court records show the Ringside Cafe was cited five times from October through December; the Pelican Pub twice; and Jannus Live and MacDinton’s three times each. All businesses sit on the same block of First Avenue N.

The citations say employees failed to wear masks properly, served customers standing at a bar without maintaining social distancing, or in some cases both. Kriseman’s executive order is named as the violated ordinance.

Jay Wolfson, a lawyer and public health expert at the University of South Florida, said the case “is a tricky one.” The approach taken by Knight Global’s lawyers seems sound, he said, but he can’t predict how a judge will address the question of executive powers vs. ordinances.

The waters could be further muddied by an executive order from the governor that suspends coronavirus-related fines on individuals. He wondered: Could a court find that the order also applies to corporations?

“I don’t have the easy answer,” Wolfson said. “It gets to the fact that we have not had organized, coordinated and strategic planning of the resources that are needed to fight this disease.”

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