Jeramey Jannene

Milwaukee Getting More Aggressive On COVID-19 Order Fines

62 warning letters issued, but city only inspecting businesses on a complaint basis.

By - Oct 23rd, 2020 11:58 am
A nachos stand and two-story bar outside of Fiesta Cafe. The business was fined $1,500 for violations of the city's COVID-19 health order. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

A nachos stand and two-story bar outside of Fiesta Cafe. The business was fined $1,500 for violations of the city’s COVID-19 health order. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

For months Milwaukee officials have said they were taking an education-first approach to enforcing the city’s Moving Milwaukee Forward Safely health order.

Businesses found to be violating restrictions on capacity, distancing, mask-wearing or other COVID-19 related violations were given a warning letter.

Since July 27th, the city issued 62 warnings. It’s only cited two businesses. Now that’s going to change. The city will skip the formal warning letter.

“The educational period is over,” said Mayor Tom Barrett in a press briefing Thursday afternoon. “People are either with the program or they’re not with the program.”

Milwaukee Health Department officials have had a problem getting compliance from many businesses, they said during a briefing Thursday morning before a Common Council committee. Barrett singled out bars in his remarks.

But bars haven’t been the dominant business type getting warning letters. According to a city report, warning letters have overwhelmingly gone to gas stations and their attached convenience stores.

The reason for that might be the manner and hours the city’s health inspection staff operates.

The city’s inspection staff operates in a reactive matter. It responds to citizen complaints. It also doesn’t go out after 10 p.m. because of staffing shortages and safety concerns. Inspectors are always sent out in pairs.

The fines, which apply only to businesses, carry a maximum penalty of $500. That’s also been an issue when the city has levied the fines.

That amount hasn’t been enough to stop some businesses, said deputy health commissioner Claire Evers. She said they view it as the cost of doing business.

The city levied three citations totaling $1,500 against Fiesta Café, 1407 S. 1st St., on August 6th. Previously a breakfast-centric restaurant, the business added a nachos stand and two-story outdoor bar this summer. A city report says they violated restrictions on mask-wearing, distancing and capacity.

Trinity Three Irish Pubs, 125 E. Juneau Ave., received two citations totaling $1,000 on October 6th for violating the city’s mask mandate and for failing to comply with distancing requirements. Trinity, which has a city-approved health plan, is allowed a higher capacity limit.

Evers said the city would begin forwarding violations to the council’s Licenses Committee. She said the health department was also exploring changes to the order to increase fines based on capacity or other size-based factors.

Common Council members, including Alderwoman Chantia Lewis, encouraged the health department to leverage the Milwaukee Police Department to better enforce the order. Lewis said a bar in her district was routinely packed.

The city is in the process of potentially changing its Moving Milwaukee Forward health order. Changes are expected to be announced next week.

Both the City of Milwaukee and Milwaukee County are seeing record levels of new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, even as the county has dropped from first to 12th in the per-capita rankings of COVID-19 cases in the past month. Wisconsin reported record highs for single-day cases, new hospitalizations, active hospitalizations and deaths related to the pandemic this week.

Violations of the city’s health order can be reported by calling 414-286-3674 or emailing cehadmin@milwaukee.gov. According to a city statement, complaints will remain anonymous.

Warning Letters

Business name, address, date issued

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Categories: Food & Drink, Health

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