State Fire Marshal Butch Browning

State Fire Marshal Butch Browning

While the majority of businesses have shown compliance with restrictions and mitigation measures imposed by state officials amid the coronavirus pandemic, State Fire Marshal Butch Browning said there are still a number of “bad actors out there.”

That resulted in Browning’s office doling out punishment for the first time this week.

Four businesses committed violations “so severe” that the state had no other choice but to cite them, Browning said during the governor’s weekly COVID-19 press conference on Tuesday.

According to Browning, the Office of Alcohol & Tobacco Control (ATC) suspended the bar permits of Sand Dollar Tiki Bar in Grand Isle, Wo-de's Chill Spot in Harvey, Frosty Factory in Lake Charles and Pelican Pub in Gonzales for what were deemed “public safety violations.”

Browning said the establishments had complaints of large gatherings or serving customers alcohol indoors. Earlier this month, Gov. John Bel Edwards shut down on-site consumption of alcohols at bars, which contact tracing has found to be responsible for at least 41 outbreaks resulting in 464 cases.

The suspensions are subject to a hearing, Browning said, and the businesses face a possible 30-day suspension of licenses.

“This is a call for action,” Browning said. “The social distancing requirements, capacity limits, and masks are paramount. These bars being closed is important for Louisiana to get back to where we were.”

Since the beginning of the outbreak, Edwards’ office has imposed various restrictions on businesses to help curb the spread of the virus. Those restrictions have included closing all businesses deemed “non-essential” when the state was under a stay-at-home order; allowing businesses to operate at 25-percent capacity in Phase One; and allowing businesses to operate at 50-percent capacity under Phase Two.

In all phases, employees dealing directly with the public have been required to wear face masks, which is separate from the governor’s statewide mask mandate issued in mid-July.

Browning said his office has tried “to work with” businesses owners on the new restrictions, even adopting a “three strikes and you’re out” approach before issuing any sort of punishment, with an exception “if someone blatantly does something that’s egregious.”

Around 14 businesses are currently on their second strike, Browning said, while the four bars that were punished this week were “three-strike businesses.”

“In the event we have people who don’t comply after chances, there are consequences,” Browning said.

Under Phase Two, most businesses and faith-based organizations are allowed to operate up to 50-percent capacity, though social distancing is still required. In addition, Edwards’ statewide mask mandate for people 8 and older, ban of on-site consumption at bars, and 50-person limit on social gatherings will remain in effect for the duration of Phase Two.

Though most businesses were allowed to reopen under Phase Two, there were some required to stay closed, particularly places of public amusement that include: locations with amusement rides, carnivals, amusement parks, splash pads, water parks, trampoline parks, arcades, fairs and festivals, children's play centers, indoor playgrounds, theme parks, concert, and music halls.

The fire marshal said his office has conducted around 5,000 courtesy visits across the state since the start of Phase Two on June 5. He credited the “vast majority” of businesses for “not only implementing mitigation measures to stop the spread, but in many cases exceeded what the state has asked.”

Browning said that in most cases, business owners address any non-compliance “on the spot” when agents point out the issues, which mostly pertain to face masks and social distance.

“We’ve communicated with thousands of businesses to give them the information they need to keep customers and employees safe,” Browning told reporters. “It’s just not fair for the businesses out there who are doing their best to help the state… recover from this pandemic when you have these bad actors out there.”

Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Edwards said there’s “nothing easy or painless” about restricting business activity but called it “necessary” to improve the COVID-19 situation in Louisiana, which is now reporting the most cases per capita in the nation.

“When you have a public health emergency that is basically unprecedented in its scale, you have to take those measures that are designed to promote public safety and keep the maximum amount of the economy open,” Edwards said.

“These are very tough restrictions, and I’m aware of that,” he said later. “There’s nothing easy or painless about that, and I apologize, but they’re absolutely necessary. There is no method available to us to get to a rate of less than 1 without the mitigations that include mandatory masks and bar closures.

“This is the best thing we can do for the economy overall and for public health, but that doesn’t make it easy.”

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