State inspectors checked more than 900 bars and restaurants around the state in recent weeks and warned 14 that they were violating Gov. Tim Walz's order to require workers to wear masks, keep capacity at half the maximum and space seating at least 6 feet apart in the long-running effort to combat the deadly coronavirus.
Investigators' unannounced inspections also found many customers violating the order's seating guidelines, the state Department Public Safety (DPS) said Monday in disclosing results of the inspections.
The order limits seating to four people who are not related or a maximum of six when they are all immediate family members. However, the DPS said, establishments reported many customers moving tables or seats together to allow for larger groups in one area.
A week ago, state health officials urged businesses to comply with existing COVID-19 protections to avoid a resurgence of infections that have forced other states to close bars, churches and other destinations.
Bars and restaurants in Minnesota were permitted to reopen indoor spaces at 50% of their fire-code capacities on June 10 as long as workers wore masks and spaced tables at least 6 feet apart.
Outbreaks involving 14 bars and 710 people over the past month or so show that some businesses haven't been taking the required precautions, state Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said.
The recent "observation-only" inspections were carried out from July 4 to July 13 by the Alcohol and Gambling Enforcement Division (AGED) of DPS along with various law enforcement agencies in the state.
Most of the violations included employees failing to wear masks (116), the agency said, followed by failure in social distancing (63) and excess capacity (30). Violators risk fines or losing their liquor license. So far, no fines have been issued nor any licenses pulled, a DPS spokesman said.
Carla Cincotta, director of AGED, said at a news media briefing Monday that investigators would "very quickly ... go in and observe, first if masks are being worn, and second, are people being seated at tables, and are those tables being appropriately distanced."
She added that "oftentimes, when we walk by or drive by, we can see that the inside of an establishment or the patio is packed with people standing or tables that have been moved and are clustered."
Out of the sweep, AGED sent 10 warning letters to bars and restaurants that violated all three areas of enforcement. These letters followed warnings sent late last month to four other businesses for violating the order.
Letters were not issued to any business violating one or two of the requirements, Cincotta said, but those establishments "are also on our radar" for further scrutiny.
Among those warned was Long Siding Bar & Grill in Princeton. Manager Amy Zentner said Monday that her business has acted in response to the letter and is now "100% in compliance."
"We've pulled more seating" from the dining area and have been "educating customers and staff on the policies," Zentner said.
"My only issue with [the order] is it was kind of vague to begin with," she said, adding that "customers don't know the policies."
The other establishments of the 919 inspected that were given warnings were: Neisen's Sports Bar, Savage; K & J Catering, North St. Paul; Route 47 Pub & Grub, Fridley; Danno's, Anoka; CoV, Wayzata; Hoban Korean BBQ, Minneapolis; Pablo's Mexican Restaurant, Shakopee; Arnie's Friendly Folks Club, Shakopee; Princeton Speedway, Princeton; Rollie's, Sauk Rapids; Breakfast Bar, Minneapolis; The Stadium, Annandale; and Cowboy Jack's, Minneapolis.
All were contacted Monday afternoon by the Star Tribune for comment.
Dan Sweeney of Danno's said he's cordoned off every other table and is now well below the 50% seating cap. He also offers masks, gloves and sanitizer to every customer for free.
"I take it very seriously," Sweeney said. "My bar is my livelihood, and I support a lot of people with my livelihood."
Investigators informed the establishments of the best ways to comply with the order's requirements. They include: marking areas for better social distancing, education about wearing masks, no live music, and shutting down games such as pool and pinball.
Booker Hodges, DPS assistant commissioner for law enforcement, said during the briefing that he shares the public frustration with limits placed on freedoms amid the pandemic. However, Hodges said, "this is a storm that we're all going to have to weather together. ... We're in the middle of a health crisis, and despite the frustrations, we all have to get through this."