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Health inspectors 'harassed' at bars during Covid-19 compliance checks

Health inspectors 'harassed' at bars during Covid-19 compliance checks

Erie County employees checking if bars and restaurants are following social-distancing and mask-wearing mandates have encountered some hostile patrons.

In some cases, the public health sanitarians have had to show up at businesses alongside Erie County sheriff's deputies, said Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz.

At Kaz's, a Blasdell bar closed by the county this week, "patrons began to yell at us to leave and told us that we should be ashamed of ourselves," an inspector noted in the inspection report.

The county Department of Health employees, who are carrying out their duties to make sure patrons and employees are following the rules, have been "treated very poorly" at some businesses, the county executive said during a press briefing Wednesday.

"They have been harassed. They've been basically told to go where the sun doesn't shine, things like that," Poloncarz said. "And I want the public to know that our sanitarians are there to work and protect the public's behalf."

In Erie County, people in their 20s comprise more than a third of all new Covid-19 cases, according to the latest statistics released by the county health department.

Contact tracers – those tasked with backtracking the interactions of infected individuals to try to determine the source of infection – have found those newly infected in this age bracket largely have been going to parties, bars and crowded restaurants, Erie County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein said.

Because of this kind of spread, the county is preparing to make a push to check compliance around the county this weekend, Burstein said.

"We are getting ready for this weekend," she said. "We’re seeing too many people getting infected in our community, and we’re hearing too much that they are getting exposed in these large parties and bars."

The county is accepting complaints from the public and employees of businesses, as well as looking online for information about coming events, she said. 

Bars and restaurants found to be in violation are not immediately ordered to close. Closure orders come only after repeated violations, officials said.

The Health Department on Monday ordered Kaz's, on Lake Avenue, to close for repeatedly failing to follow state guidelines, Poloncarz said. County inspectors were at Kaz's at least three times, with the most recent violation found on Monday, he said. 

But an attorney for the establishment said inspectors found violations only on one occasion before they returned days later with a shutdown order.

"There were no repeated violations," said Dan Chiacchia, attorney for brothers David and Richard Kacmarski. "They came to the bar one time and shut them down."

And what the inspectors observed was "very minor," Chiacchia said.

County health department inspection records show sanitarians visited the bar on July 16 and found "an imminent health hazard condition."

According to an inspection report posted online by the county:

  • The bartender spoke to sanitarians "without her mask on, until we told her to put it on."
  • Bar patrons and the owner were seen standing and drinking.
  • Bar patrons were seen walking around without wearing masks.
  • Face coverings were not worn by all employees.

Tempers inside the bar may have gotten "a little hot," but the owner felt he was being singled out, Chiacchia said.

Poloncarz has recently warned the public that anyone who attempts to assault or manhandle a public health sanitarian will be prosecuted.

Representatives of Kaz's have filed a "corrective action plan" with the Health Department, which is reviewing the submission, Poloncarz said.

Nearly all of the bars and restaurants visited by public health sanitarians "have been given the A-OK" by the county, he added.

So far in July, the county has ordered the closure of two other bars – The Cowboy, on Chippewa Street in Buffalo, and The Stage, on Main Street in Clarence, spokeswoman Kara Kane said.

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