Seeking wider reopening, Delaware fines, shuts down COVID-19 violators

Public health officials doubled the number of compliance checks in August. A sports complex got a $5,000 fine. One pub was shut down on the spot.

The owners of the Wilmington sports complex where the 76ers minor league team plays was fined for violations during youth basketball league play and a college football scouting combine.  (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

The owners of the Wilmington sports complex where the 76ers minor league team plays was fined for violations during youth basketball league play and a college football scouting combine. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

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Enforcement of coronavirus restrictions in Delaware has ramped up in the last month as promised, and led to recent fines against a Wilmington sports complex and a Dover-area restaurant/bar, the brief shutdown of a Newark pub and the breakup of a large off-campus party hosted by University of Delaware students.

More than 400 compliance checks were conducted in August at eateries, drinking holes and other businesses, said Jamie Mack, chief health protection officer for the Division of Public Health. That’s about the same number as June and July combined, officials said.

At one place “the conditions were concerning enough that they were closed on the spot,’’ Mack said during Gov. John Carney’s weekly coronavirus briefing.

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That occurred at the MadMacs pub in Newark near UD’s football and basketball stadiums. Inspectors found “multiple violations’’ during a visit last week, said public health spokeswoman Jennifer Brestel.  The pub “agreed to close in order to address the compliance issues and reopened the following day,’’ she said.

Early Monday, Newark police were called to the scene of a party with about 75 people in violation of a new city ordinance that limits gatherings to 20 outdoors and 12 indoors.

Three UD students were issued citations. The university was notified and has referred them to the Office of Student Conduct, which could lead to educational intervention, suspension or expulsion, school spokeswoman Andrea Boyle Tippett said.

Carney and public health officials say violations like those at MadMacs and by the UD students will lead to further spread of the coronavirus and impair efforts to get students in school full-time and allow Delaware to move to Phase 3 of recovery, the final step toward full opening.

“If you are young and out, we really need you to step up to the plate because that’s where many of the new cases are coming from and it’s coming from activities that need to be curtailed,’’ Carney said.

“Whether you are at the University of Delaware at an off-campus party or in a restaurant or bar and it’s later at night and things are getting a little looser than should be the case, or whether you are just at a neighborhood gathering with 30 or 40 or 50 people, with no mask wearing or anything like that.

“Our effort is centered around getting people back to work, where they have a livelihood to support their families. Whether it’s getting students back in front of a teacher in school, with in-person instruction, whether it’s getting athletes back on the field. We can affect whether we can do that or not by following the rules, following the guidelines.”

Stuck in Phase 2 since mid-June

Delaware has been in Phase 2, with restaurants and many other businesses limited to 60% of capacity, for more than two and a half months. Carney put the brakes on his plan to move to Phase 3 on June 29 because the state was still experiencing moderate spread of the coronavirus — and that has not changed.

Carney has allowed public schools to have hybrid or remote learning but most will start with only online instruction for at least the first six weeks of school.

To date, Delaware has had more than 17,700 cases of COVID-19 and 606 related deaths. The state has averaged 97 new cases a day during the last two weeks, far more than what Carney wants to see before he eases restrictions further.

The governor also added stricter rules for some businesses and their patrons late Thursday.

His latest State of Emergency order:

  • Requires businesses to have employees furnish written documentation, such as a doctor’s note, to justify not wearing a face covering.
  • Encourages customers of restaurants to wear a mask when waitstaff visits their table, and when they are not eating or drinking.
  • Mandates that people working out in gyms wear face coverings while weightlifting.

Carney also relaxed rules for bars in beach towns, letting patrons sit there as long as they make a reservation, order food and stay at least six feet away from non-household members. Since early July sitting at the bar of a tavern or restaurant has been prohibited.

Mack from the Division of Public Health, said the focus of enforcement efforts has been shifted away from Sussex County’s beaches — whose high season winds down after Labor Day — to the Newark and Dover areas, where some students have returned to UD and Delaware State University, respectively.

He said the typical first step when violations are found is to provide guidance to bring establishments into compliance. But that approach has limits.

“We were not as patient with some of the facilities as we had been in the past,” Mack said. “So we have now issued fines and we’ve taken some other enforcement actions.”

Fines to Wilmington sports complex, Dover-area pub

Just two companies have been fined, Brestel said. The biggest went to BPG Sports, which operates that 76ers minor league team’s sports complex in south Wilmington and has soccer, basketball and other youth programs.

Brestel said BPG Sports, a subsidiary of the Buccini/Pollin Group whose development projects dominate the Wilmington area, was “assessed a $5,000 administrative penalty for continued non-compliance of COVID-19 requirements.”

Owner Rob Buccini told WHYY the sports center is providing a needed outlet for kids during the pandemic, but acknowledged protocols were too lax during a summer basketball league and an event that let high school football players showcase their talents for college recruiters.

“Clearly we have not been perfect,’’ Buccini said. At the football event, “unfortunately we did not have enough security to ensure that athletes were consistently keeping their masks on. Several parents also weren’t wearing them appropriately.”

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Buccini said complex officials did not do enough to ensure that kids in the hoop league were wearing masks while off the court, and that overall, there weren’t enough hand sanitizing supplies provided.

“Going forward, we’ve added additional security personnel and we’ve tried to educate the athletes as much as possible,’’ Buccini said.

The other fine, of $1,000, was issued to The Green Stinger restaurant/bar south of Dover, also for multiple violations, Brestel said.

The University of Delaware, where some students were cited for a crowded off-campus party this week, has launched the “Protect the Flock” initiative. (Courtesy of the University of Delaware)

Violators ‘doing us a great disservice’

Boyle Tippett said UD is pushing its “Protect the Flock’’ campaign — a nod to the Blue Hens nickname of the university’s sports teams — to get better compliance and control the spread of the coronavirus.

Students have been provided masks and T-shirts with the slogan, and signs and flyers across campus proclaim the mantra, she said.

School officials are disappointed the students having and attending this week’s illegal party weren’t “having more consideration of one another,’’ Boyle Tippett said. “What we really want is not for the university or the police to be policing students, but for the students to really take action themselves and not to be taking part in behaviors that they know are risky.

“Everyone has to realize that this isn’t magically going away. I’m hopeful that we can get back to normal but you have to take steps to make it happen,” he said.

Mike Quaranta, president of the Delaware State Chamber of Commerce, said the “vast, vast majority’’ of Delaware’s 57,000 licensed businesses are following the guidelines under unprecedented and shifting conditions.

He says despite the violations that are being found, enough companies and their employees and customers are taking the proper precautions on face coverings, physical distancing, sanitization and capacity limits to warrant further reopening.

Quaranta said those who do violate Carney’s State of Emergency measures “are doing us a great disservice because they are pushing in ways which run counter to employer and business owners, people who have risked their own time, their own capital and their own future, trying to do the right thing to manage a business. It’s too bad but we ought not make public policy based on the bad behavior of a few.”

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