South Sound bar could be in hot water over COVID-19 rules

VIDEO: Tacoma bar accused of flouting the governor's COVID-19 rules

TACOMA, Wash. — A South Sound bar is accused of flouting the governor’s COVID-19 rules, and neighbors are worried about customers spreading the coronavirus.

Neighbors say An American Tavern in downtown Tacoma should be shut down if the owners can’t follow the COVID-19 restrictions other businesses are adhering to.

Co-owner Kyle Bidwell says he is trying to do two things: stay in business and follow the rules.

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Many of his neighbors say he isn’t following the rules, and they worry what is being allowed to happen here could help spread coronavirus.

“That (April) was the first indication I saw that we had some issues,” said a woman who did not want to show her face. She spoke for several of her neighbors, who are upset by what they have seen going on inside the bar for months during the pandemic.

“Well, obviously my concern is COVID-19 violations,” she says.

Violations, she says, that are revealed in a video courtesy of the Tacoma News Tribune.

RAW video: Tacoma bar on thin ice with liquor board

“There’s tons of people in there,” she says. “They’re all young so they could be asymptomatic spreaders.”

The video shows a mostly full bar in what appears to be a violation of the Governor’s COVID-19 protocols released in early October. Bar rules outlaw the playing of games, including billiards.

All patrons are required to wear masks unless eating or drinking; the bar itself is to be made off-limits. The establishment isn’t allowed to serve anyone after 11 p.m.

“Several of my neighbors have noticed that at 11 o’clock when the other bars close, we see an increase of people who actually don’t even come here until 11 o’clock,” she said. "And last night (Friday), he stayed open until 1:40, when I noticed them closed.

Co-owner Kyle Bidwell said by telephone the state Liquor & Cannabis Board cited them only once for holding a live comedy show, an event he has since canceled. He says he is trying to follow the rules, and trying to work with the state.

Benjamin, a Tacoma resident who doesn’t frequent An American Tavern, says he’s not sure if any of what they are doing is wrong.

“As time goes on, we’re getting information that what we’re being asked to do, at the very least, is questionable as to the value of doing it,” he said.

The co-owner says he does not believe he is breaking the rules.

Neighbors want them shut down if they continue the violations.

Calls and emails to the state Liquor and Cannabis Board had not been returned by Saturday night.

LIQUOR BOARD WARNINGS

Reached by email, the state department of Labor and Industries referred The News Tribune to the Liquor and Cannabis Board, which issues and regulates liquor licenses for all bars and restaurants in Washington. (LNI has fined 11 businesses from July to September for mask violations, as well as several businesses, including gyms, for operating outside state guidelines.)

The liquor board visited An American Tavern on Oct. 15.

An enforcement officer inspected the bar after a complaint of COVID violations. Spokesperson Brian Smith confirmed to The News Tribune that the officer that Thursday night “witnessed there was no social distancing, large groups gathering in and around the premises with alcohol service after 11 p.m., with patrons playing pool.”

The bar had been cited twice previously in the past 12 weeks: Aug. 7 for patrons playing pool and Oct. 1 for serving alcohol after 10 p.m. (Gov. Jay Inslee updated the alcohol cutoff time to 11 p.m. five days later, Oct. 7.)

Per the liquor board’s enforcement escalation process, the officer has discussed Safe Start regulations with the bar’s owners several times. Next steps regarding the Oct. 15 incident are ongoing and are likely to result in further action, said Smith.

When pursuing a complaint, he explained, liquor board officers will first talk with the business owner about the issue and explain how to remedy it.

“In most cases, education is all that is needed to bring the licensee into compliance. If there were aggravating circumstances or the officer felt it required more than education, he can follow up with a written warning,” which would happen within a matter of days, he said.

Bidwell repeatedly insisted that the rules were nothing more than just that.

“Am I breaking a law?” he asked when pressed why the bar, unlike most of its peers, was allowing patrons to play pool and not requiring them to sit at tables.

Knowing that the liquor board has been tasked with ensuring its licensees are adhering to the regulations — and that it holds the right to suspend or revoke a license, during a pandemic or otherwise — did not seem to deter him.

“We would appeal,” he said.

HEALTH DEPARTMENT’S ROLE

The county health department could not locate specific records of complaints regarding An American Tavern, said spokesperson Dale Phelps, but that does not necessarily mean there have been none.

Phelps added that local health departments' hands are tied when it comes to acting on COVID violations at businesses under their purview. They do not have the authority to punish a business for ignoring a rule issued by the governor’s office. Inslee’s Safe Start guidance falls in that court.

Instead, county health departments work “in a cooperative process” with the state Department of Health.

First, the local department forwards an initial complaint to the governor’s office. Then DOH would call the food-service business and “provide education.” A second complaint would trigger a site visit by the local health agency, which would submit a report back to DOH, and a third complaint would refer the case to the Attorney General’s Office, where all subsequent complaints would flow automatically.

Phelps said he could not say whether any cases of COVID-19 had been traced back to the bar because it does not meet the agency’s requirement for public disclosure.

The state DOH told the News Tribune it has not assigned any complaints about An American Tavern to its COVID enforcement division. Spokesperson Ginny Streeter said complaints received by DOH would be assigned to the “appropriate” state agency, which in this case “could have been” the liquor board.

As of Oct. 22, the liquor board did not have additional news to share of its next steps.