At a recent county delegation meeting, Del. Carol Krimm asked the head of Frederick County’s Liquor Board if and how the Liquor Board’s health inspectors were doing health inspection and coronavirus directive tests during the pandemic.
Liquor Board Chair Debbie Burrell’s answer was simple: The county’s two inspectors were conducting both random checks and educating restaurants that have liquor licenses for the past several months.
But, she acknowledged, in a growing county, it’s a lot of work.
“It’s a big county, and we have two inspectors,” Burrell said during Saturday’s meeting.
The county Liquor Board issued new directives in September outlining what Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and County Executive Jan Gardner’s (D) executive orders have required regarding service in bars and restaurants, including:
- Six feet between tables
- Face coverings must be worn by staff and patrons unless “actively eating or drinking”
- Tables must be sanitized between each patron/group
- Capacity is limited to 50 percent
At first, there were warning periods for these violations. But now, the first offense carries a $250 fine and a “no-contest letter,” second violations go to the Liquor Board for a decision and further violations could result in a license suspension.
That being said, both Krimm (D-Frederick) and Del. Jesse Pippy (R-Frederick and Carroll) said Monday they believe most licensees countywide are doing their best to follow these rules and keep everyone safe amid the pandemic.
“We’re not here, or the inspectors of the Liquor Board ... to try to backstab somebody and try to get them,” Krimm said. “The purpose here is compliance, I think we have good licensees in Frederick County and we have had a good record of compliance.”
Burrell wrote in an email Monday the Liquor Board is working with the county’s Health Department to educate businesses about the directives. She said that department is taking the lead on the directives, and that two businesses have paid $250 through the “no contest letter” process.
The Health Department is hiring six contracted employees to help with the inspections, Burrell said.
“The county hired these six contractor employees through a company that the county has a contract with,” Dr. Barbara Brookmyer, the county’s health officer, said in an email about those employees. “They will have training with the Health Department and work closely with the food control office of the Environmental Health Division.”
Pippy said adding more inspectors for the Liquor Board has been discussed for years. He used to serve on the board before he was elected as a delegate.
Frederick County has roughly 300 businesses with some sort of alcohol license, Pippy estimated. In a growing county, another inspector might be needed.
“As licenses grow and the county grows, I think it’s something that the Liquor Board should consider,” Pippy said.
A look at fines, restaurant compliance
During Saturday’s meeting, Burrell and Pippy both said the Liquor Board’s first goal is to educate restaurants who hold alcohol licenses, not penalize them.
Pippy said he didn’t know the circumstances that led to either of the $250 penalties, but he commended the board for working with businesses and for businesses in doing their job to keep the community safe.
“I think the Frederick County Liquor Board is taking the position [that] they’re working with licensees … [and] the fine is a last resort,” Pippy said. “They want to ensure education over violation.”
Leadership in some local restaurants said maintaining social distance, sanitizing between tables and mask wearing have become normal practice now and thanked Liquor Board inspectors for educating them about the new directives.
Kenneth MacFawn, co-owner of White Rabbit Gastropub in downtown Frederick, said local authorities have been helpful even before the pandemic.
“They’ve been so cool with trying to help restaurants out,” MacFawn said about the Liquor Board. “They are so progressive and so cool right now ... Even before this, they’ve been really cool.”
Kim Firestone, owner of Firestone’s Culinary Tavern in Frederick, said restaurants have been “on the honor system” to prevent the spread of the virus if an employee tests positive, along with following coronavirus directives.
He hasn’t seen any random checks from inspectors or other officials, but said tasks for separating tables and sanitizing between groups was an easy adjustment.
“It’s just part of the routine right now,” Firestone said. “We follow the rules very carefully and we hope for the best.”
They had to close down a few months ago because an employee tested positive, but haven’t had any cases since, he said.
Jake Cline, general manager at Hometown Harvest Kitchen in Frederick, said some Liquor Board inspectors have popped in to educate his staff about the new directives.
He commended his staff for following the directives closely and exercising personal responsibility. It’s why his business has so far avoided any positive cases, he said.
“I think some of that has to be with our staff being cautious within themselves ... they weren’t going out on the town, so to speak,” Cline said. “I think restaurants are pretty used to be being on top of sanitation. I think being in the food service industry … it is really just going a couple steps further.”