As the number of COVID-19 cases rise in Palm Beach County and Florida overall, county officials are considering more strident enforcement regarding bars and restaurants flouting operating restrictions.
County Administrator Verdenia Baker told the Palm Beach County Commissioners on Tuesday, July 14 that she has been working to impose heavier fines, closing the facilities of violators and possibly suspending alcohol licenses in an effort to flatten the spiking curve of new COVID-19 cases and deaths.
“Our COVID-19 Education & Compliance Team has been outstanding,” Baker said “We also include our fire department along with the health department. As we go into these places, we are ensuring that if they are not supposed to be open, we’re closing them.”
She said that many facilities have agreed and closed, but they just open back up when the compliance team leaves.
“We are working on an ordinance modifying our fines so that we can put those fines in place,” Baker said. “Right now, I don’t have the authority to levy those type of fines.”
She said that bar owners regard the current fine of $500 as the cost of doing business. “If I’m only going to get fined $500, I can make that in 15 minutes. I can do that all day and all night,” Baker said. “We have to have a hammer so that it hurts.”
Palm Beach County Mayor Dave Kerner said he has had discussions with senor staff to raise fines to as high as $15,000 per violation and possible license revocation.
“We are currently working with the Department of Business & Professional Regulation, through the Division of Law Enforcement, which is also known as Alcoholic Beverages & Tobacco, and they are part of our education and compliance team. They go out with the men and women here locally, and they are empowered at a higher level to do some regulatory enforcement, including, but not limited to, revoking of the liquor license on the spot for violations,” Kerner said.
He commended the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office and other local law enforcement agencies for their robust support for everything that the county has done so far to enact regulatory efforts.
“There will always be a heavy emphasis on education through this team, but we are transitioning now to more of an enforcement perspective because the education has gone on for some time,” Kerner said. “We’ve seen some very robust results and participation from the business community, and at a certain point, you enter into a phase where the violations become direct and by design.”
In additional to fines, the county issued an emergency order effective Thursday, July 16 closing all businesses that sell alcohol for on-site consumption at 11 p.m. each night, which will be strictly enforced.
Dr. Alina Alonso, director of the Florida Department of Health-Palm Beach County, said that Florida last week reported a total 206,447 cases, an increase of 75,988 cases, and 499 more deaths, and the areas of new cases are along main travel routes close to Orlando and Tampa, causing an overload for testing and reporting.
“We don’t want to just watch this go up,” Alonso said. “We’re trying to take action and improve the way were dealing with this virus.”
She said that one of the problems is the time delay of nine to 12 days with laboratories reporting the results.
“That makes the data useless,” Alonso said, adding that the only tool they have currently is social distancing, wearing a mask, staying home if sick and washing hands frequently.
She said part of the spike is due to some faith-based and other organizations starting to meet in groups again, sometimes for funerals. Families and friends are letting their guard down and meeting in social gatherings. Another issue is homes being rented out for private parties, over which enforcement agencies have little control other than enforcement of noise ordinances.
The health department is also closely watching area hospitals, many of which have canceled elective surgeries to make space for ICU beds.