Fire marshals visit local businesses enforcing occupancy capacity, health guidelines amid uptick in violations

Inspectors are authorized to stop events exceeding capacity until the occupancy is corrected

HOUSTON – Mayor Sylvester Turner said some clubs and bars are ignoring the 25% occupancy requirement established by the state to prevent the spread of COVID-19. He said starting Sunday night the fire marshal will begin to enforce the regulation.

This is a reversal of the city’s protocol of handling violations. While Turner initially said the city would not be enforcing the rules, citing resources and a lack of support, he said the overcrowded establishments during Memorial Day weekend has forced him to change his stance.

“The two times we tried to enforce the governor’s order, we didn’t get support from the state and that’s why we decided to stand down,” Turner said. “But as the mayor of the city of Houston, I can’t ignore that there is a healthcare crisis.”

Turner said he has received photos and there are others on social media of clubs and bars violating the health standards. He said people are not social distancing or wearing masks.

“There are too many people that are coming together to some of our clubs, our bars, swimming pool parties, no social distancing, no masks,” Turner said at a press conference Sunday. “You are forcing us to step in for public health reasons to say: ‘No, we’re not going to allow that.’”

Houston-area clubs and bars are reopening for the first time since mid-March. Gov. Greg Abbott’s reopening Texas plan allows restaurants to operate at 50% capacity while bars and clubs must operate at 25%.

Throughout the reopening process, the bar industry has demand lawmakers to prioritize the reopening of their establishments. Earlier this week, owners received the official green light from Abbott to reopen starting Friday.

“I want us to move forward but this will set us back,” Turner wrote on Twitter.

Fire marshals hit the streets

KPRC 2 went along as the Houston Fire Marshal Office visited three locations Monday.

“We come out here and just kind of see what's going on and if it's a valid complaint or not,” said Houston Fire Department inspector Jeannice Mitchell.

Mitchell did not find any issues at two of the locations but offered extra masks to employees at one.

The third business was closed when inspectors arrived. She said her main goal is to educate businesses if she sees them doing something wrong.

“They want to do the right thing. They also need to make a living, so like I said, we just try to work together,” Mitchell said.

At a burger restaurant, the inspector thanked the manager for all of his efforts to follow the rules.

Houston Fire Department Chief Samuel Peña said the department has addressed more than 300 complaints of violations to the state’s orders since Friday. He said the department has taken an information and education approach toward compliance.

However, inspectors are authorized to stop events exceeding 25% capacity until the occupancy load is corrected.

“We’ll work with businesses in adhering to Gov.'s order, but admittance beyond approved capacity will cause events to be stopped until (the) condition is correct,” Peña wrote on Twitter.

According to Turner, fire marshals will not be arresting people, but they can issue citations.

“If a place has too many people in it that is violating their occupancy requirements, the fire marshal does have the power to close them down for the night,” Turner said.

Turner urged business owners and the public to enforce COVID-19 health standards.

“In the absence of a vaccine, we have to learn how to co-exist with this virus for now," he wrote. “Crowding into any environment with no social distancing and masks will expose everyone.”

He added if the public wants more businesses, facilities, entertainment centers to open and stay open everyone must follow the safety requirements.

“Our job is to manage the spread of this virus and we won’t be successful if we ignore its existence,” Turner said.

Chris Badillo, the head bartender at The Front Porch Pub, said fire marshals have already stopped by their business off Gray Street.

“They just came to check it out to see if we were following protocols. So far, we haven’t had any problems,” he said.

According to Badillo, the business wasn’t issued any warnings or citations. He added they have taken a proactive approach to the governor’s mandates.

“We have six feet between tables, no bar stools and hand sanitizer,” he said. “When we see a group of people bigger than six people, we tell them to spread out or they have to go.”

Turner also acknowledged on Twitter that many businesses are opening up safely and have implemented safety measures.

“I want to personally thank those many businesses who are opening up safely and have implemented safety measures to protect their customers (and) employees, and they are playing by the rules,” He wrote. “I want to thank the many customers who are doing the same. Thank you!”

Here is the full press conference from Mayor Turner Sunday:

Mayor Turner to discuss the reopening of bars, clubs

Mayor Sylvester Turner said some clubs and bars are ignoring the 25% occupancy requirement established by the state to prevent the spread of COVID-19. He said starting Sunday night the Fire Marshal will begin to enforce the regulation.

Posted by KPRC2 / Click2Houston on Sunday, May 24, 2020

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