Lawrence Clay had never seen the line outside of his bar, Lit at Midtown, as crowded as he did Saturday night. The festivities died down when Gainesville Fire Rescue arrived to shut it down.
GFR officers arrived at the scene around 10:30 p.m. and said they were closing the bar for fire code violations related to a blocked exit and exceeding capacity, Clay said. He believes the firefighters didn’t do a proper count of patrons, so the closing of his bar wasn’t warranted.
“It’s only a problem now that the government mandate was lifted,” he said. “This is a retaliation for them to get around COVID restrictions.”
The bar, located at 1120 W. University Ave., opened its doors last January. It was issued two citations from GFR — one for overcrowding and the other for a rear exit that was chained shut, assistant chief Stephen Hesson said. About an hour after firefighters shut down the scene, the bar was cleared to reopen.
While Lit at Midtown was fined for fire code violations unrelated to COVID-19, the county may start fining businesses for customers who COVID-19-order violations.
After one civil citation, a business can be fined up to $500, Hesson said. The fine doubles after the second violation, and there is a mandatory hearing after the third. Law enforcement may also prosecute criminal activity in addition to code violations.
If owners don’t resolve issues after the hearing, GFR can shut down the business repeatedly, he said.
Gov. Ron DeSantis declared that the state would move into Phase 3 Sept. 25, meaning that local businesses, such as bars and restaurants, no longer have official capacity restrictions. Gainesville and Alachua County officials still stress the importance of local mask and social distancing ordinances.
Local government is not currently fining individuals for violating local COVID-19 health ordinances, Hesson said. However, business owners are required to disperse crowds of 50 or more. He believes the governor’s decision is confusing.
“Our effort is limited to education and providing masks and signage,” he said.
The City of Gainesville made a Facebook post announcing that the city closed Lit at Midtown. The post garnered more than 350 likes and 400 angry comments, some unhappy that the city closed it and others furious at the actions of students and bar management.
“It is so blatantly obvious how ticked off the city is that the Governor took their ‘POWER’ away,” one commenter wrote.
“You can’t teach common sense,” another wrote.
While the post is still online as of Friday, Clay said he sent a request for it to be deleted to the city manager.
The post makes it seem like the bar was permanently closed, he said. He said the bar has seen a 75% decrease in attendance since the post was made, but he’s unsure if other factors like midterms are also keeping students from coming to the bar.
To Clay, having less people come to his bar is not necessarily a negative impact of this situation because the business will have an easier time following fire codes.
Despite frustration from some business owners, Hesson believes Gainesville is taking the necessary precautions to keep the community safe.
“It’s all in the name of safety,” he said. “Our codes only exist because someone, or sometimes hundreds of people, have lost their lives, and we develop regulations to correct the actions that led them to die.”
Last weekend, the Gators beat South Carolina. Students went out to celebrate the win made for a busy game day weekend with house parties and swarms of unmasked students going to bars.
The Gainesville Police Department didn’t have a hand in Lit at Midtown’s shutdown, but they also assist the GFR in patrolling bars and student parties.
Nineteen complaints were filed to the GPD Party Patrol, a volunteer police task force working to enforce county protocols, GPD spokesperson Graham Glover said. Three arrests were made but were unrelated to parties. To Glover, this shows little change from the previous weekend when 20 complaints were filed and no arrests were made.
While COVID-19 orders can be confusing, the city has tried to explain the orders to Gainesville businesses and patrons through social media and community outreach, said Rossana Passaniti, city spokesperson.
The governor’s order does allow local governments to fine businesses for mask ordinance violations, especially if the staff isn’t wearing masks, she said. They can’t enforce fines for mask violations made by individuals.
“We encourage businesses to practice social distancing and to wear masks — we are in a pandemic, and this is new territory for us,” she said.
Correction: This article was updated to reflect that the county may begin fining businesses for customers who do not follow COVID-19 regulations. It has also been updated to reflect that local governments are not currently fining individuals for violations and the manner in which local governments can and are fining business. The Alligator originally reported differently.