Maine public health authorities have stepped up enforcement of pandemic-related business regulations since late August, sanctioning more establishments than in the previous four months for ignoring requirements on face coverings, social distancing and other prevention methods.
Fourteen establishments, mostly restaurants, have received “imminent health hazard” citations since August 20. Only two had been cited previously since the pandemic began.
Two businesses have had their food and beverage licenses temporarily suspended for repeatedly violating state protocols, according to state health inspection program records obtained by the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram. All other cited businesses were in compliance as of early last week.
Sunday River Brewing Co. in Bethel, which has repeatedly flouted the state’s COVID-19 requirements and opened in May despite state orders for restaurants to remain closed, was issued a temporary restraining order to correct lapses in early September but has since indicated it will comply with state regulations, according to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.
The vast majority of Maine businesses, particularly eating establishments and hotels, are taking the virus seriously and adhering to the state’s safety guidelines, said Dana Connors, president and CEO of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce.
“Maine businesses have done an incredible job of addressing their responsibilities and recognizing the role they play for the state,” he said. “Those that don’t are the exception and not the rule. I think businesses have stepped up and taken this on with tremendous responsibility, and I find it hard to be convinced otherwise.”
CRACKDOWN IN MAINE
The rush of citations comes in the aftermath of a wedding ceremony and reception in the Millinocket area in early August that created a so-called superspreader event linked to almost 180 COVID-19 cases and eight deaths as of Saturday. None of the people who died attended the event. Big Moose Inn in Millinocket, which hosted the wedding reception, was issued a citation on Aug. 20. Its operating license was suspended on Aug. 26, and the suspension was lifted two days later.
An increase in enforcement action relative to previous weeks is not unexpected given requirements in place as a result of the pandemic, said DHHS spokeswoman Jackie Farwell.
An imminent health hazard citation for noncompliance with COVID-19 restrictions lasts for 30 days if a business agrees to comply. If an establishment does not comply, or noncompliance is observed within 30 days of the citation, the state issues a temporary license suspension.
The state’s health inspection program is also working with local authorities that have been strengthened by a $13 million infusion to support public health education and prevention activities. That funding includes staff time for code enforcement and local health officers to educate local businesses on best practices and follow up on complaints, Farwell said.
“In recent weeks, HIP (the health inspection program) has continued to respond to complaints and taken appropriate action following investigation when compliance is not achieved,” she said. “HIP takes repeated lack of compliance seriously and will continue to encourage compliance but take enforcement actions when appropriate to protect public health and safety.”
Every business issued an imminent health hazard citation or a temporary license suspension has been educated about health and safety requirements prior to any enforcement action, Farwell said.
THOUSANDS OF COMPLAINTS
As of Aug. 17, the state had received more than 4,000 reports of noncompliance through an online portal hosted by the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development, according to information received from the department through a Freedom of Access Act request.
Some of the reports were duplicates or complaints about Gov. Janet Mills’ executive orders around gatherings and requirements to wear face coverings in public, the department said.
But more than 1,000 complaints were followed up with notifications to establishments of the complaint and educational materials about how to comply with emergency regulations.
The Department of Professional and Financial Regulation, which includes licensing boards for doctors, nurses and dental examiners, has sent 90 noncompliance notifications to licensees. The Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry received 492 noncompliance reports that required notifications to establishments.
The state’s health inspection program followed up on 514 noncompliance reports, including sending emails to establishments that provided education and warnings that fines, citations or temporary suspensions would be issued for continued noncompliance.
When the program receives a complaint, it is vetted and assigned to the inspector or local health representative if the municipality has one, according to DHHS. Inspectors have called establishments, emailed or conducted site visits about complaints. If establishments refuse to comply, inspectors conduct a site visit and issue an imminent health hazard citation if noncompliance is observed, according to the department.
Businesses that continue to operate in violation of a health hazard citation can be fined $100 per day. Those that operate without a license can be fined $200 per day for a first offense and $500 for subsequent offenses. Fines have to be paid before the next annual health license is issued, unless the matter is appealed.
Rick’s Cafe, a busy bar and restaurant on the waterfront in Naples, was issued an imminent health hazard citation and temporary eating place license suspension on Sept. 6. The health inspection program noted a lack of face coverings, including a bartender not wearing the required face covering and face shield, in its records. The restaurant still was not in compliance as of last Monday, according to the state.
In an interview, Rick’s Cafe owner Bailey Odum said the restaurant was cited because it did not require cooks to wear face coverings in the hot and smoke-filled kitchen.
“Our kitchen staff, we are not requiring them to wear a face shield and a mask, that is the end of our story,” Odum said.
The restaurant closed for the season after the Labor Day weekend, she added.
“We were tired, the staff was tired – we were done,” she said.
Some online reviews as late as Sept. 7 gave the restaurant poor rankings and claimed waitstaff were not wearing face coverings, but Odum disputed those accounts. The restaurant is next to a busy pedestrian thoroughfare, and some patrons did not like being seated outside next to people without face coverings passing their table, Odum said.
“All of our servers wear face masks,” she said. “We had a great season. Ninety-nine percent of our customers were great – that one percent sucked.”
Bru-Thru Coffee Shack, a small drive-thru coffee shop in Cumberland, was cited on Aug. 28 for employees not wearing masks. Owner Tyrone Agro said he thought it was unfair that a few people out of the 45,000 he has served since the pandemic started could anonymously complain to the state. The shack is so small that wearing a mask wouldn’t make any difference, and most of employees are members of his family, he said.
“The mask is kind of a joke,” Agro said. “We all thought it was a joke. We still think it is a joke.”
Randy Belanger, owner of 45th Parallel Woodfired Grille in Oquossoc, said he was surprised when the state issued a citation to his business on Sept. 9 for staff not wearing masks and not social distancing. The restaurant’s operating license was temporarily suspended last Thursday because of noncompliance.
Belanger said he operated his business the same way all summer, and all of a sudden he was in trouble because of an anonymous complaint that could have come from someone with a vendetta or a business competitor. The only correspondence he received from the state was two days before a health inspector came to the restaurant and issued the citation, he said.
“We’re doing things right given the case we are in the middle of the woods and mountains,” Belanger said. “No one had approached me or given me legal correspondence to be in compliance.”
It should be the state’s responsibility to provide regular training and guidance for businesses to stay on top of the rules, he added.
“Here we are in a situation where no one has given us that opportunity, no one has passed that information down to me, I guarantee that,” Belanger said.
Joey Morton, owner of Town and Lake Motel in Rangeley, said his business was cited after the state received an anonymous complaint that it was not following Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention room-cleaning guidelines.
That was actually not one of the reasons the business was cited, but the state did report that it was not maintaining lodging compliance certificates, needed signs and face masks for staff.
“I don’t think the state has done a very good job of letting people know what the rules are,” Morton said. “We’ve been trying to follow the rules – we thought we were doing everything properly.”
The anonymity of complaints frustrates Morton. In May, he was warned by the state about social distancing because someone saw him at the business with his family and grandchildren, he said.
“People can call and make a complaint completely anonymous, and here they (the state inspectors) come,” he said. “I wish there was a name to it; you can talk to me about it.”
Other businesses contacted by the Press Herald/Sunday Telegram either declined interview requests or were not available.
SUNDAY RIVER COMPLIES
Sunday River Brewing Co., which defied state authorities and reopened in May before a business closure order was lifted, has been issued three imminent health hazard citations, the latest on Sept. 9. The restaurant, which has made a name for itself for its open contempt of the state’s safety rules, has had its food and beverage licenses temporarily suspended three times. So far, it has racked up $10,800 in fines.
On Sept. 4, DHHS obtained a temporary restraining order against the restaurant from Oxford County Superior Court on the basis that its business practices presented a public health risk.
“The order to comply with the same requirements imposed on restaurants around the country inflicts no harm on the defendant except the inconvenience of governing their staff,” the order says.
Sunday River Brewing was ordered by the court to require staff to wear face masks, place tables and bar stools 6 feet apart and reinstall Plexiglas in front of the bar.
It did not, however, issue another license suspension.
“The court does not order closure at this time,” the order says. “The current license suspension expires Sept. 6 and an order to cease operations would have no practical effect. Furthermore, compliance with this order would minimize the risk to public safety.”
Farwell said the restaurant agreed to comply with state rules on Wednesday.
Sunday River Brewing part-owner Rick Savage did not respond to an interview request left with the restaurant Friday.
In a Sept. 4 affidavit, Savage said his business was being selectively targeted because of public statements he made on national television about Gov. Mills, and that staff at other establishments in Bethel also were also not wearing face masks.
Many of his staff members have complained about difficulty breathing when wearing a mask, Savage said, and it is inappropriate for him to inquire about the health conditions of any employee concerning their ability to breathe.
SAFETY GOOD FOR BUSINESS
Although a minority of Americans oppose wearing face coverings and practicing physical distancing on ideological grounds, from a business perspective it makes sense to do everything you can to make customers feel safe, said Connors, of the state chamber. Three-quarters of Americans favor wearing masks to prevent the spread of coronavirus, according to a July poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
Mainers appear to support COVID-19 prevention measures, too. A survey of almost 3,000 Maine consumers in June by the Southern Midcoast Maine Chamber found the vast majority wanted to patronize businesses that took pandemic rules and regulations seriously.
Half the respondents said they had left or would leave a business with unsafe social distancing practices, and two-thirds said they would travel more than 10 miles to shop and eat in a community that pledged to follow safe social distancing practices, according to the survey.
In tough economic times, restaurants, shops and other establishments should do everything they can to prove to customers they take coronavirus seriously, Connors said.
“It is not only a sound business practice, in some cases it is the difference between survival or not,” he said. “It matters to people that you are doing it. It makes a difference if I am going to go to your business or not.”
Please check your email to confirm and complete your registration.
Use the form below to reset your password. When you’ve submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.