Despite all 67 counties being in the ‘green’ phase of Pennsylvania’s COVID-19 reopening, due to the steadily increasing number of new cases throughout the state Gov. Tom Wolf placed new restrictions on bars, restaurants and other businesses last week. The new restrictions brought more uncertainty to an already tenuous situation for some business owners and raised further questions about enforcement of the Department of Health order that underlines mitigation requirements for all businesses operating in the state.
The Pennsylvania State Police are chief among the entities responsible for enforcing the order, and regularly issue news releases about their efforts, which to date have by and large consisted of issuing warnings while conducting compliance checks at businesses.
Compliance checks are unannounced and can occur anywhere in the commonwealth, although the focus is on areas experiencing higher coronavirus transmission rates, according to state police.
“It’s not our intention to jam someone up in the legal system,” said state police communications director Ryan Tarkowski Tuesday in explaining that officers’ emphasis is on raising awareness. “We want to bring them into compliance.” He added that the “numbers show the vast majority of establishments are trying to do the right thing.”
After a period of issuing only warnings, state police did apparently take a more hardline stance at one area business this week, according to a news release issued Wednesday.
The release notes that a business visited by Pennsylvania State Police Liquor Control Enforcement officers from the Allentown enforcement office received a notice of violation for allegedly failing to follow COVID-19 mitigation requirements; requirements that include managing social distancing by ensuring parties dining at tables are spaced at least six feet apart, requiring the use of face masks by customers except when they are seated, requiring the use of face masks by employees at all times, and maintaining a significantly reduced level of maximum occupancy, among other things.
The business that received the notice of violation is not named in the news release, and under the state’s liquor code it won’t be while an investigation is still being conducted. If an administrative citation is ultimately issued to the establishment, that information will be included in a monthly news release issued by the Allentown office, state police said.
Administrative citations, which are civil in nature, can carry penalties such as a $1,000 fine and the suspension and/or revocation of a business’s liquor license.
PSP Liquor Control Enforcement officers reported visiting a total of 1,876 licensed liquor establishments Monday and Tuesday to ensure they were abiding by the mitigation mandates first put into effect by state health secretary Dr. Rachel Levine in March.
In addition to the one notice of violation, officers issued a total of 47 warnings, including one in the Allentown area, the news release said. Harrisburg and Pittsburgh area officers issued 13 warnings, respectively, to licensed establishments in those areas, although the ratio of businesses warned to businesses checked varied considerably. According to the statistics police provided, a total of 42 licensees were visited by Harrisburg officers, while Pittsburgh officers visited more than 600 establishments over the same two-day period.
Businesses that receive warnings can likely expect to receive unannounced follow-up visits from plain-clothed officers checking for compliance, Tarkowski said, adding that state police take their role in helping to safeguard the Pennsylvania residents’ health “very seriously,” particularly as the coronavirus pandemic worsens statewide and across much of the nation.
Officers have issued a total of 233 warnings related to COVID-19 mitigation efforts at licensed liquor establishments and conducted nearly 14,000 compliance checks throughout the state since July 1, per Pennsylvania State Police published data.
Tarkowski noted that various licensing entities for other types of establishments are responsible for conducting their own checks, just as the Pennsylvania State Police’s Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement (BLCE) has authority over any establishment that serves alcohol. For instance, hair and nail salons are under the jurisdiction of the PA Department of State and restaurants which don’t serve alcohol answer to the PA Department of Agriculture. Additionally, the PA Department of Health has the authority to direct checks on any place of employment, as do local agencies, Tarkowski said.
The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania website offers numerous resources to help Pennsylvanians deal with the effects of COVID-19. Concerned citizens can report a business they believe is not complying with the mandated COVID-19 mitigation efforts by using the Pennsylvania Department of Health complaint form found here.