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RI health officials cite 12 bars for COVID-19 violations. Here’s what some owners had to say

Target 12

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Rhode Island health officials have cited 12 restaurants and bars for noncompliance with COVID-19 related health and safety orders, but some of the owners are pushing back against the claims.

The R.I. Department of Business Regulations on Wednesday posted a list of new noncompliance orders on the state’s website, citing restaurants, bars and a golf course for various issues largely related to bars. The issues ranged from employees and patrons not wearing masks when required, to people working behind the bar — which isn’t allowed under current regulations, unless there’s a non-porous barrier like plexiglass.

“There are restaurants throughout Rhode Island that are doing a great job welcoming and serving customers in a way that is healthy and safe,” Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott said in a statement. “The few that are not are hurting the entire industry, jeopardizing the safety of their customers, and setting Rhode Island back in our work to prevent the spread of COVID-19. As residents, business owners, and a state, we need to be more vigilant now than ever.”

Only one establishment received a shutdown order — known also as “immediate compliance orders” — meaning it must close because the Health Department claims the violations “represent an imminent threat to public health.” But the business — along with all other companies cited with violations — are allowed to reopen once the issues are addressed to the satisfaction of health inspectors.

Eight businesses were partially shutdown — also known as “partial immediate compliance order” or a “combination order” — meaning the must shutter parts of the establishments found in violation. But owners can can keep other parts of the business open while addressing the violations.

Three businesses received warnings, or “compliance orders,” and owners are given a 10-day window to address the problems before health officials re-inspect the businesses.

Here are the 12 businesses cited for violations:

Shutdown

  • Tafino Restaurant and Lounge in Providence

Partially Shutdown

  • PJs Pub in Narragansett
  • Morse Tavern in Coventry
  • Buffalo Wild Wings in Warwick
  • Fairlawn Golf Course in Lincoln
  • O’Rourke’s Bar and Grill in Warwick
  • Lifestyle Nutrition in Providence
  • The Wharf Pub in Newport
  • Portsmouth Publick House in Portsmouth

Warnings

  • Theater Tap Bar in Pawtucket
  • Pasha Hookah Lounge and Bar in Providence
  • Boulevard Grille and Cigar Lounge in Pawtucket

Target 12 reached out to all 12 establishments for comment. Two owners and a spokesperson responded saying they were already addressing the issues, but some were confused by the rules. Another owner pushed back on the Health Department’s claims. The rest did not immediately respond.

The only business to receive a full shutdown order — Tafino Resturant and Lounge — was cited for several violations, including widespread disregard for the state’s mask-wearing requirements.

The Health Department requires all staff and patrons to wear masks whenever social distancing isn’t possible, which the inspector said didn’t happen during a July 25 visit.

“The inspector took note of approximately 15 patrons entering the establishment, none of whom were wearing masks and none of whom were instructed to wear cloth face coverings,” health officials wrote in the report. “Nearly all of the approximately 60 patrons inside the establishment were not wearing cloth face coverings.”

The owner did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Robert Towner Jr., owner of Boulevard Grille & Lounge in Providence, pushed back on the cited violations, claiming health inspectors didn’t ask for certain items, such as his written plans for safe operations, which he said exists.

Towner was also cited for not wearing a mask, which he said is true — but that he’s not supposed to wear one because he has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a inflammatory lung disease that obstructs airflow.

“I cannot wear a mask,” he said. “They did not ask for documentation.”

Domenic Tortolano, owner of the private bar known as Theater Tap Bar in Pawtucket, said he’s already made the changes cited in the Health Department order. But he said the communication wasn’t great, and that he was confused about who to reach out to about fixing the issues. The state provided no contact number on the notice, he said.

“It’s already been done,” he said about fixing the violations, which included providing proper signage. A bartender had erroneously pulled down their mask, he added, saying that had also been addressed.

Scott Kirmil of The Wharf Pub said he misunderstood the way the regulations were written. The pub was cited for not having plexiglass across the entire bar area, which Kirmil said he thought was only required where patrons sit. He said a health official didn’t mention any issues during an earlier inspection.

Kirmil, who owns the pub with his wife, said they are fixing the issues today and expect an inspector to come back Thursday.

A Buffalo Wild Wings spokesperson said the restaurant was cited for having high-top tables pushed up against the bar, but had already addressed the issue.

“Following the notice, the tables were immediately removed from the bar, and we are now complaint with their request,” said spokesperson Jack D’Amato.

A representative for O’Rourke’s Bar and Grill declined to comment.

The citations come at the same time states across the country are grappling with renewed surges of COVID-19, and health officials claim congregating at bars is particularly problematic.

“Congregation at a bar, inside, is bad news,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said last month.

Gov. Gina Raimondo has likewise said partying and congregating in large groups has become a problem, warning restaurants and bars that they were ramping up inspections and that those found out of compliance would be shut down.

“There’s no excuse anymore for not complying,” Raimondo said during a news conference Wednesday. “We’re really going to increase our enforcement. And quite frankly it’s not fair the vast majority of restaurants that are following the rules. The grace period is over and we’re going to get tougher with enforcement.”

In other states, such as Texas, state leaders allowed bars to reopen, only to re-close them again last month.

Bars and restaurants have been hit especially hard during the pandemic, as the industry was among the first to be ordered shuttered early in the pandemic. The expectation is that many will never reopen, which is partly why Towner feels so frustrated with the violations he feels are unwarranted.

“We’re doing the best we can to stay alive here,” he said.

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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