Citations, temporary shutdowns at reopened restaurants

Hoban, Stella’s cited for lax enforcement of regulations

Stella’s Fish Cafe
Stella’s Fish Cafe was cited by Minneapolis health officials for failing to enforce social distancing regulations. The bar has been identified by the state as one of nine establishments in the city to have a COVID-19 outbreak among patrons. Photo by Andrew Hazzard

Attempts to reopen restaurants for dine-in service in Minneapolis in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic have had mixed results, with COVID cases shutting some establishments and government enforcement making others clean up their operations.

In Southwest Minneapolis, some restaurants have shut themselves down due to exposures, while others, including Stella’s Fish Cafe and Hoban Korean BBQ in Uptown, have received citations or warnings from government officials enforcing regulations on how service is conducted during a pandemic.

The Minnesota Department of Public Safety (DPS) sent warning letters to 10 bars and restaurants across the state that had violated rules around capacity, mask wearing and social distancing after investigators with the alcohol and gambling enforcement division surveilled 919 establishments between July 4 and July 13. Among those issued warnings were Uptown’s Hoban and two Downtown bars, Cowboy Jack’s and Breakfast Bar. No fines were issued, but the state hopes the warnings will lead to better compliance, according to DPS assistant commissioner Booker Hodges.

Failure of employees to wear masks and clustering of groups in violation of social distancing requirements were the most common issues, state officials said at a press conference. Letters were only sent to establishments violating all three major restaurant requirements: masks for employees, limiting customers to 50% or less indoor capacity and failing to spread out tables or limit group size. Further violations could result in revocation of liquor licenses.

“We don’t want to get in a situation where we need to roll things back,” Hodges said.

Restaurants across the state are often left to enforce the regulations among themselves and make determinations on the best course of action in the event of an exposure. In Minneapolis, some restaurants have shut down briefly after a worker or customer reported a case, including Mortimer’s in Whittier and Nico’s Taco Bar in East Isles.

Nico’s announced it would close for contact tracing, testing and extra sanitizing on July
14 after a staff member tested positive for COVID-19. It reopened on July 18.

“We are lucky to have employees who stay home when they are sick and feel they need to be tested,” the restaurant posted on social media.

Mortimer’s co-owner Jasha Johnston announced he had tested positive for COVID-19 and would be temporarily closing the restaurant to allow for staff testing on July 16. The restaurant worked to contact everyone on their reservation list to let them know, he wrote on Facebook. He and his wife, Carrie McCabe-Johnston, also run Nightingale at 26th & Lyndale and have temporarily closed that restaurant while they quarantine.

“We can open back up once the rest of the staff results come back ‘not detected,’” wrote Johnston, who noted that he is asymptomatic.

Neither restaurant responded to requests for comment by press time.

The Minneapolis Health Department has been doing its own investigations to ensure bars and restaurants are complying with coronavirus regulations. Three bars were issued citations for violations between July 16 and July 18: Stella’s Fish Cafe in Uptown, Conga Latin Bistro in Northeast and Wild Greg’s Saloon in Downtown, according to city spokesperson Sarah McKenzie.

Stella’s was cited for failing to keep groups separated on its rooftop patio and not ensuring groups larger than four were from the same household, according to a copy of the citation obtained by the Southwest Journal. It was fined $200.

The Minneapolis Health Department has done three sweeps of bars since limited dining began in June, McKenzie said. Inspectors introduce and identify themselves to management and point out any issues in real time. In the most recent inspections, inspectors examined 16 bars on Thursday, July 16, and returned to those with issues over the weekend. The problems at Stella’s had been corrected on reinvestigation, McKenzie said. Stella’s management did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

There have been 243 complaints to 311 about businesses failing to adhere to city-wide indoor mask requirements from June 1 to July 22, McKenzie said.

Mortimer’s owners Jasha Johnston and Carrie McCabe-Johnston, shown in this 2018 file photo, temporarily closed their Whittier restaurant on July 16 after Johnston tested positive for COVID-19.

‘Bad out there’ for service workers

For restaurant staff, returning to work has been “very stressful,” according to Sarah Webster Norton, executive director of the service industry advocacy group Serving Those Serving. The nonprofit works with restaurants across the Twin Cities, including Black Sheep Pizza and Iron Door Pub in Southwest, to provide access to support services like mental health treatment. In a typical month, it will help about two people with crisis calls, but in the first two weeks after restaurants reopened, it fielded more than two dozen.

Restaurants vary widely in how well they are handling reopening, Norton said. Places known for being well-run and good to staff before the pandemic are doing well, she said, but establishments that were doing poorly before are often failing to create a safe environment.

She’s heard from industry workers about packed restaurants with little mask use and establishments hiding COVID cases to avoid losing revenue. Many longtime workers are stressed and considering leaving the industry.

“It’s bad out there,” Norton said.

Adam Borgen, chair of Serving Those Serving and a bartender at Smack Shack in the North Loop, said while his restaurant has taken COVID regulations seriously, he and other workers are concerned about the inconsistencies restaurant to restaurant and anxious about customers bouncing between different establishments that vary in how well they are adhering to regulations.

Norton said workers in the area have redubbed the North Loop “the COVID den.”

Borgen has worked in the Minneapolis restaurant scene for 24 years and knows people at several establishments in the city. Many places, he said, are taking shortcuts. He is hoping service workers can seize the moment to improve conditions and change the industry culture so that employers stop pressuring them to work through illness.

Borgen said people who are going to bars and restaurants should have fun but respect the rules establishments have in place to protect workers and fellow customers.

“The biggest thing is be kind,” he said.