The city Thursday issued the first citation against a restaurant for violation of orders meant to prevent people from gathering during the COVID-19 crisis. Just hours after, it retracted the citation but not before igniting furor on social media and raising a question about who should be responsible for policing crowds during the pandemic — business owners or the governments who created the rules?
Island businessman Dennis Byrd on Thursday posted on social media that popular island restaurant The Spot, 3204 Seawall Blvd., had received a citation from the Galveston City Marshal’s Office for “Violation of an Emergency Order.”
“I was told that it is my responsibility to ‘police’ my parking lot to ensure that we do not have any guests within 100 (feet) of our property eating and drinking the food and beverages they purchased from us,” Byrd said. “I respectfully disagree that I should be responsible for ‘policing’ my parking lot. I look forward to my court date.”
Although there won’t be a court date, Byrd made his point while hitting a nerve in an industry severely hobbled by social distancing measures and among islanders who want to support small businesses’ efforts to stay open under difficult conditions.
“My phone blew up about how we’re picking on a poor guy who is just trying to feed the community and why were we picking on him when others were doing the same thing,” City Marshal Butch Stroud said in a phone interview Friday.
The city issued the citation in the early afternoon Thursday and retracted it by 4:45 p.m., officials said. The city from now on will police such violations by issuing citations to patrons, not establishment owners, spokeswoman Marissa Barnett said.
It wasn’t immediately clear whether Stroud knew the citation had been retracted when speaking with The Daily News on Friday morning or whether public outcry changed the city’s policy.
The city issued the citation after code enforcement officers saw six people sitting in The Spot’s parking lot eating food they had purchased from the restaurant, Stroud said. Such violations are Class C misdemeanors with fines up to $500.
The city has warned other restaurants but most have complied without the need for citations, Stroud said.
“It’s not the city’s intent to write citations for these violations,” Stroud said. “Our sole wish is they just voluntarily comply with emergency orders in place, so we can get through this and move forward.”
The city issued the emergency order March 17 and revised it to include the 100-foot rule March 19. Since then, city marshals have visited The Spot and issued warnings at least twice a week, Stroud said.
The order states: “That it shall be unlawful for any person to consume food or beverage within 100 linear feet of the food establishment from where the food was purchased. As an exception, patrons may consume their food or beverage within their automobile whether or not the automobile is within 100 linear feet of the food establishment from where the food originated.”
The orders also prohibit restaurants from providing tables for patrons to eat food they bought on the premises.
UNCLEAR ON POLICING
But the order doesn’t specifically state who should police patrons.
“It’s not in writing,” Stroud said. “It’s more of an assumed responsibility. Other restaurants are doing it without hesitation.”
Byrd declined to comment in detail about the incident.
In a Facebook post on Friday, he said: “While I suppose we understand the intent of this ordinance is to prevent large gatherings, it remains inherently difficult for us to ‘police’ this issue due to obvious limited staffing.”
Byrd went on to ask patrons for assistance in compliance.
Restaurants must walk a fine line with emergency orders and keeping customers happy, said Johnny Smecca, a principal of Galveston Restaurant Group, which owns Saltwater Grill, The Gumbo Diner, Papa’s Pizza, Mario’s Seawall Italian Restaurant, Sky Bar Steak & Sushi and Taquilo’s Tex-Mex Cantina.
Keeping customers happy and returning is a priority for any business, and that’s made more difficult by trying to enforce social distancing orders.
“We’ve had patrons get mad at stuff that’s not in our control,” Smecca said. “We’re trying to do everything possible not to upset customers. It’s a fine line.”
Smecca understands reasons for the social distancing orders but believes the city should focus policing efforts on preventing crimes, he said.
Byrd on Friday said he was glad to have the ordeal behind him.
“In a good faith effort to be positive, I prefer to not add anything more to this,” Byrd told The Daily News. “The citation has since been retracted. Our focus remains on putting our team back to work and contributing to the community in which we serve.”