Mayor: City inspectors to join state in checking bars, restaurants

Code enforcement to monitor businesses for compliance with COVID-19 reopening guidelines


JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A day after Gov. Ron DeSantis announced crackdowns on restaurants and bars that fail to follow coronavirus guidelines included in the governor’s executive order, Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry said the city has created a task force to handle enforcement locally.

Curry said it is the responsibility of bar owners to make sure that they are not over the allowed 50% capacity inside and that people aren’t standing shoulder to shoulder, potentially spreading COVID-19.

On Wednesday, the Department of Business and Professional Regulation told News4Jax it has received five complaints of restaurants in Jacksonville operating at over 50% capacity since June 5, when the state began its second phase of reopening.

On Tuesday, Halsey Beshears, with the DBPR, said the state had received a total of 106 complaints since June 5.

The emphasis on enforcing the guidelines comes after several bars and restaurants in the Jacksonville Beach area and elsewhere around town voluntarily closed for deep cleaning after customers and employees reported testing positive for COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

The crackdown also follows an explosion in the last week of COVID-19 cases among younger people in Florida, specifically those ages 25 to 34, according to DeSantis.

A string of some of the largest daily increases since the coronavirus pandemic made it to Florida continued Wednesday with the state Department of Health reporting a record 5,508 additional people testing positive for COVID-19.

An additional 217 cases were reported in Duval County on Wednesday, also a one-day high.

As Florida and Jacksonville see more widespread transmission of the coronavirus, DeSantis -- followed by Curry on Wednesday -- reminded bar owners and workers that they must operate at 50% capacity inside under guidelines included in DeSantis’ June 3 executive order for Phase 2 of reopening Florida’s economy.

In addition to the occupancy limit, pubs, as well as restaurants, must offer seated service -- no one is allowed to stand -- to allow for everyone to socially distance since tables should be spaced 6 feet apart.

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The governor said if someone sees a pub or restaurant not following the rules, it needs to be reported as there is “no tolerance for that.” He said he hopes the suspension of licenses will send a message.

“If they’re operating at 55%, OK, give them a warning and tell them, ‘Hey, 50.' But if you go in and it’s just like mayhem like ‘Dance Party USA’ and it’s packed to the rafters, that’s just cut and dry and that’s not just an innocent mistake,” DeSantis said. “If you don’t follow the guidelines and you pack huge numbers of people indoors that are very close, you’re creating an environment that you’re going to see more spread, and I think we’ve seen that with some of the younger (population).”

The Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation will be suspending food and alcohol licenses for establishments found not to be following those guidelines.

State Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco officers will check on bars and restaurants around the state between 5 p.m. and 1 a.m., the DBPR secretary said.

Curry said the task force of code enforcement personnel in Duval County will also work mainly in the evenings, and he also stressed that the effort is not meant as a “gotcha” for businesses doing their best to follow the rules.

“If they are trying to comply and it’s not out of control, we’re going to work with them. But where it’s flagrant, where it’s dangerous. ... We’re going to take action, and they risk losing their license, so people need to behave and react responsibly,” Curry said.

DeSantis’ announcement Tuesday came after a University of Central Florida-area bar had its alcohol license suspended. At least 13 employees and 28 patrons at The Knight’s Pub had tested positive for COVID-19.

The owner of the Knight’s Pub in Orlando fired back on Wednesday, saying the bar is being used as a “scapegoat,” and that it had been closed sing June 8 “because it was the right thing to do” after learning of the illnesses.

News4Jax made a request with the Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco to find out if any Jacksonville-area restaurants or bars have received citations or complaints. The request had not yet been fulfilled Wednesday afternoon.

To report businesses or restaurants not complying with coronavirus precautions call the city at 904-630-2489 or use the MyJax app if it’s after hours. You can also call the Department of Business and Professional Regulations at 850-487-1395.

The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.

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