How Counties And Businesses Are Coping With A Patchwork Of COVID-19 Enforcement Rules
As restaurants, bars and other businesses started to reopen across South Florida they were quickly forced to shut back down as coronavirus cases began spiking again last month.
And for business owners, or anyone stepping out of their home, it's been tough to keep track of the latest safety rules and guidelines.
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In different counties, there’s a different patchwork of efforts to crack down and prevent the spread of COVID-19. Mask rules, social distancing rules, takeout rules. Business owners and their customers are feeling the ups and downs, and scrambling to keep up.
In Broward County, people are getting a couple different messages: make sure to support local businesses … but if you see a business breaking any COVID-19 rules — mask wearing, proper sanitizing, social distancing — you’re supposed to report that to the county by calling 3-1-1 or reporting it online. They’ve been getting about 150 complaints a day, according to a code enforcement presentation on July 23.
"Before we find ourselves in a complete community shutdown again, we want to make every effort that we can to go after enforcement, and go after it hard,” Broward County Administrator Bertha Henry said. She is the person who issues the local emergency orders.
To keep track of rule breakers and citations, the county has its own online dashboard.
After cases surged earlier this month, the county added more restrictions. One example: Between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. restaurants are takeout or delivery only in Broward.
Henry said, code enforcement officers are finding the most problems after dark.
"If we have establishments or members of the community that’s just not paying attention — we’re just kind of spinning our wheels a little bit," she said.
For business owners who aren’t allowed to open back up — particularly bar and nightclub owners — they are frustrated.
Brian Abraham opened a new bar called LIT in Wilton Manors — three days before bars were shutdown in March.
"I'm just trying to get things moving," he said. He doesn't think it's fair restaurants that serve alcohol can have indoor dining, albeit with limited capacity, but bars can only sell drinks to-go.
He opened in the parking lot outside one day, and he says code enforcement made him stop.
Abraham is now suing to reopen his business:
"If I need to comply with doing 51 percent food sales, I would do 51 percent food sales,” he said. “But do I find it to be completely and totally ridiculous they're shutting down bars because the governor, Broward County and Wilton Manors believes that if people sit six feet apart, but at a table, and drink alcohol — but don't eat food — there's a better chance of getting the coronavirus? So if I serve corndogs, that's OK? Where's the scientific fact on this?"
This back and forth with rules has left businesses in Miami reeling, too.
"There's a bit of whiplash to it," said Zak Stern, who owns Zak The Baker in Wynwood. Emergency orders forced him to shutter his cafe in March.
"I feel like I'm spinning constantly, and spinning constantly can make you feel dizzy and disoriented and demoralized and exhausted. But we're doing it, right?," he said. "We’re jumping through the hoops because we have to."
He understands the need for rules, and he’s not opposed to them.
"We have rules for food safety. We have rules for kosher. We have rules for the city," he said. "We don't get to pick and choose which rules we implement."
But keeping up with changes can be frustrating, he said.
"Just getting through the day. Just operating at the standards that we're used to operating at. It's exhausting," he said.
The slowdown also left him with painful decisions: after the first shutdown he had to lay off 14 servers. Stern managed to keep his business running by maintaining wholesale orders, including Whole Foods. But he's losing money.
"For us, success will be to get to zero. Get to break even," he said. "And that's it. That's our goal right now."
Read More: Heard On Sundial: The Rise Of Zak The Baker
And in Palm Beach County? No more after-hours fun. County commissioners ordered restaurants to close at 11 p.m. each night as part of a crackdown on late-night gatherings.
The COVID-19 positivity rate is hovering around 10 percent and health experts say that’s too high to fully open businesses. Code enforcement is watching.
"I think when they come out, you know, it's a little like, 'Oh, gosh, here we go.' ... Did that chair move too close to that table?" Suzanne Perrotto said. She is the chef and owner of Brule' Bistro and Rose’s Daughter in Delray Beach. "Yeah, we get a little nervous."
The decision to crackdown reverberated everywhere. Perrotto is focused on how stricter code enforcement has heightened the tension between her customers and staff.
She said they’ve been unfairly scrutinized by a few anxious guests.
"One of our employees has a clear mask. And we had someone who called code enforcement and let them know that he was not wearing a mask. And he was, it's a clear one with a white chin holder. And it's perfectly protocol," Perrotto said. "Then when code came in, they were really nice about it and they just said, 'OK, that's cool. We obviously we can see that he's wearing it.' Yeah, we're being scrutinized."
Perrotto takes sanitation seriously — she’s been in the restaurant business for 30 years. And she’s noticed a pattern. Certain customers coming in, threatening to report restaurants — often in rude ways.
"There was a gentleman that walked in our restaurant without a face guard got on and walked up to a table and started speaking to another gentleman. And one of the customers put her mask back on, went up to my 17-year-old host and just berated her with questions and, and threatened to call the hotline if she ever let anybody walk in the restaurant without a mask on again," Perrotto said.
Perrotto says there are other things that affect the restaurant business in Delray, like the temporary closure of Second Avenue, the main street that runs through the heart of Pineapple Grove.
Despite the barriers, she says her staff has a great sense of humor, and the nearby restaurants support each other — they’re all adjusting to the enforcement and coping with the changes.
A DIFFERENT STORY IN MIAMI-DADE
But back in Miami-Dade, which Johns Hopkins University ranks third in the nation among counties with COVID, it's clear not everyone is following the rules.
"We're four or five months into this. We understand the severity. People know the severity of this," said Miami-Dade police spokesman Alvaro Zabaleta. "This is taking lives. It's putting people in ICUs. It's caused the economy to close down."
This month the county got more aggressive with enforcing rules by authorizing police to start handing out tickets of up to $100 for not wearing masks or social distancing. In the city of Miami, repeated fines can soar to $500.
Miami-Dade has, so far, issued hundreds of fines and shut down more than two dozen businesses, Zabaleta said. Most were smoke shops and a few indoor soccer facilities. By far, he said, customers not wearing masks remain the biggest rulebreakers.
"We can hear a million and one excuses,” Zabaleta said. “But the bottom line is you didn't have it on."