When businesses break COVID rules, many warnings, few fines

Nearly 60 businesses and organizations have generated complaints to the Snohomish Health District in 2021.

EVERETT — No one’s wearing masks. The restaurant is packed. Bosses aren’t telling staff about COVID exposures.

Those are some of the complaints lodged against businesses, churches, government agencies and other organizations that are allegedly breaking COVID-19 safety rules.

From Jan. 1 to May 10, nearly 60 such grievances were filed with the Snohomish Health District, according to records obtained by The Daily Herald. Nearly half were reported in May.

The alleged culprits include restaurants, retail stores, churches, gyms, coffee shops, car lots, beauty schools, day cares, a card room and even a city government.

In some cases, the state has levied fines or revoked licenses.

But when a complaint is filed with the health district, the first step is to try to educate businesses on the rules.

One team is assigned to make contact with schools, day cares, restaurants, health care centers or long-term care homes that generate complaints. They address the alleged issue and go over expectations. Another group focuses on positive cases in a workplace.

For all others, the health district sends a letter to the business outlining the complaint and an overview of COVID-19 requirements.

“Thankfully, we’ve received complaints about just a fraction of the total number of businesses in Snohomish County,” health district spokesperson Heather Thomas said. “This goes to show that the majority of owners, managers and employees are following the guidance and working to keep people healthy.”

Additionally, all complaints are also forwarded to the state Department of Health.

But some keep breaking the rules.

“I think they’re hurting other businesses,” County Councilwoman Megan Dunn said. “They’re preventing our state from moving forward. Unfortunately, a lot of the rules are based on the fact that you have to care about other people.”

In Everett, Nadine’s Coffee House has received five complaints this year.

“On February 13th I entered this business and nobody on the staff was wearing a mask,” one person said. “On February 16th I saw on their Instagram that they are bragging about not requiring masks and allowing large groups of people to gather inside the small coffee shop that they run. These sort of businesses are putting a terrible name on everyone else and need to be stopped and shut down until they can follow the rules.”

Three other people reported a party hosted in mid-February at the coffeehouse with 30 to 40 guests and little regard for masks or social distancing.

Jacob Ort, the shop’s owner, declined to comment for this story.

That same month, the Department of Health received a complaint alleging the city of Lake Stevens was not following masking and social distancing rules, while some employees tested positive for COVID.

Officials with the city did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

To some business owners, a false allegation of wrongdoing is an insult to the work that goes into following all of the state’s safety protocols.

At Scuttlebutt Brewing in Everett, one person accused the restaurant’s owner of telling sick staff to not get tested.

“Since this pandemic began, we’ve required employees to do a ‘temp check’ daily as they arrive for work and if they answer ‘yes’ to having certain symptoms they are forced to leave,” owner Phil Bannan Jr. said in an email. “At the first word that an employee had tested positive for COVID, we acted with our staff’s safety in mind and provided our crew with needed information and directives to get tested if they had concerns. To imply that I am not, ‘doing anything about it,’ and, ‘not recommending testing,’ is very wrong, it’s moronic and it’s very insulting. We’ve actually done quite a lot.”

The restaurant went a year without a positive case among staff, he said.

“Every one of these employees that had COVID quarantined as long as they were recommended by their doctor,” he said. “We never pushed them to come in even a day early. We didn’t want them back until they were cleared. We had many that quarantined until they got negative test results, sometimes taking days. I can’t tell you how many days of work we’ve lost because of situations like this. It’s been a lot. We’ve gone thin on staff many days to allow for all of this and we’ve all worked very hard to get through this last year.”

Dunn said that people concerned about a business not following safety protocols should reach out to a manager or owner before filing a complaint.

And businesses, she added, should have an open mind to hearing from customers if an issue arises.

Joey Thompson: 425-339-3449; jthompson@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @byjoeythompson.

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