GALVESTON

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It wasn’t immediately clear whether Stroud knew the citation had been retracted when speaking with The Daily News on Friday morning or whether public outcry changed the city’s policy.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.”

Laura Elder: 409-683-5248; laura.elder@galvnews.com

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(10) comments

Bailey Jones

"The city from now on will police such violations by issuing citations to patrons, not establishment owners" - this makes more sense. Do city police still carry bullhorns? It seems like bullhorns would work as well as citations, or better. And the officers could stay in their cars.

Carlos Ponce

I'm surprised bailey didn't post "SEND IN THE DRONES!"

Walter Dannenmaier

Or we could get on about accepting that there was an hysterical over-reaction to the early reports and projections. And before the "we're all at risk of dying" chorus tunes up, someone please point me to the cluster of deaths that originate from Kroger, Randalls, Arlans, Specs, and especially Home Depot. I don't think you can. It was hysteria, and we put 15% of the country (so far) out of work because of it.

Gary Miller

Walter> Most of the local rules were historical responses. Most haven't done anything except teach citizens how to be obedient subjects. Citizens resist, subjects OBEY.

Wayne D Holt

[thumbup]

Wayne D Holt

The City has offered zero public proof of any of the underlying "threats" to public health that supports the idea of emergency restrictions at the ridiculous levels they have gone to. Zero. What we've gotten is a continuous tape loop of the words, "Abundance of caution" as a mantra evidently intended to distract us from asking for hard data.

We now know the beaches were never of any concern to the City as public health hazards. We also know plague-ridden metro Houston (Harris County) has ten times fewer proven cases of the virus as a percentage of their population than Galveston County has yet, incredibly, City officials are still trotting out the idea that we are being held hostage to Harris County because of their threat to us. Like a zombie popping out of the ground, no matter how many times you hit this misinformation in the head with a shovel it just won't die. The virus clinical case rate as a percent of our county's population is in the ten-thousandths of one percent as of April 21.

Personal experience: I was sitting in a city parking lot on a rainy day, about 50 yards from the beach, in a car with windows rolled up eating a slice of pizza with no other cars there. Some nice folks in an official vehicle rolled up to tell me I had to leave. I defy anyone reading this to point out what the public health hazard could conceivably be under those circumstances.

What has been lost in this narrative of emergency powers is there actually has to be an emergency to justify even considering one. The only emergency we are facing now is the one that government put us into by creating an emergency that wasn't justified by the data.

There comes a point where adults, Americans, simply have to say, "No more of this insanity." We have acquiesced to an hysteria that would have been very familiar to the residents of Salem. We have allowed our entire economy to be thrown back 90 years to a level of depression that was a national trauma we still talk about...and the present one is shaping up to be even worse.

How much more of this national suicide are we willing to tolerate from our national, state, county and city political class? You are beginning to see even sheriffs and police departments beginning to push back against the mind-boggling level of control the political class claims they have the right to impose.

Enough. No more. It's time to free America and lockdown government for this unfolding nightmare.

David Schuler

[thumbup]

David Bloom

[thumbup]

James Lippert

Another galveston tar ball in the making.

Doug Sivyer

I agree this "police your own lots" puts restaurant associates in a less than hospitable view to patrons they are asking to move. However there should be some shared responsibility. Restaurants should be required to provide signage encouraging distancing and the police could drive by during peak times and reinforce the idea with bull horns. I have been out this past weekend to grocery stores, Randall's Kroger, Lowes, and was surprised to see that many people seem to have abandoned their use of face coverings and distancing. I believe some have fallen into a false sense of security due to a couple rouge states opening their restaurants to inside dining, hair saloons, movie theaters etc.. This pandemic is far from over and it's proven that distancing and face covering is an effective safeguard if the fight against the spread of this nasty virus. I don't understand this irresponsible behavior and encourage all citizens to practice this sensible precautions when in public around groups of people.

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