County commission hears other side of COVID-19 mitigation enforcement argument

Jonathan Riley
McCarthy's Pub in Pittsburg is one of several local businesses that have recently received warning letters from the county government about alleged public health order violations.

CRAWFORD COUNTY, Kan. — Late last month, Crawford County officials announced a new policy that will allow penalties including fines of up to $500, misdemeanor charges, and potentially closing businesses for violations of state and local public health orders.

While supporters of strictly enforcing COVID-19 mitigation measures are undoubtedly pleased with the county’s new approach, others are not, with some making the argument that the county is cracking down hardest on small businesses that have struggled the most during the pandemic, while taking a more lax attitude toward big-box stores that could more easily afford the threatened fines.

One such critic of the county’s new enforcement policy is Bryan Hanson, owner of McCarthy’s Pub in Pittsburg, who recently received a letter from the county saying law enforcement had witnessed health order violations at his bar.

“I’ve been in business 16 years, and in that 16 years I’ve had zero alcohol violations,” Hanson said at Tuesday’s Crawford County Commission meeting. “I don’t think there’s another place in Pittsburg that can say that. I have had zero health code violations. And now I’m getting this type of stuff with zero contact from you guys, or the county, or ‘Hey, let’s have a sit-down,’ or whatever. These are demands. This is outrageous.”

Between the upstairs and downstairs areas at McCarthy’s, Hanson said, the bar has a total capacity of 232 people. On the two occasions that Pittsburg police officers visited the pub earlier this month, he said, the number of people they observed at the bar did not exceed about 15 percent of that capacity.

A copy of the letter sent to McCarthy’s, which Hanson shared with the Morning Sun, notes that when police visited, “patrons were walking around the bar drinking, socializing, and playing pool. Several were standing at the bar talking with employees.”

Although the letter also notes that patrons and employees were not wearing masks, Hanson had a different view of the alleged public health violations outlined in the letter.

“It says that people were up, they were playing pool, whatever,” he said at Tuesday’s county commission meeting. “There’s no law against playing pool.”

Hanson also said that except for once, two months ago, he had not been previously contacted about problems with his bar’s COVID-19 mitigation efforts.

“Did this exact letter go out to every business that’s similar to mine?” he asked. “Applebee’s, Chili’s, Colton’s, Jim’s Steakhouse? Did these letters go out to them also, or is it just towards me?”

County Counselor Jim Emerson said that nine establishments recently visited by the Pittsburg Police Department had received similar letters.

In response to a question from Commissioner Jeremy Johnson, Pittsburg Area Chamber of Commerce President Blake Benson, who was also at Tuesday’s meeting, noted that the Chamber hosted a Facebook Live event with county health officials in early November where businesses could submit questions about the public health orders.

“There were a lot of specific individual questions about what exactly the health order meant for businesses, and [Crawford County Deputy Public Health Officer] Dr. [Linda] Bean and [Public Health Officer] Dr. [Tim] Stebbins were able to answer that on the spot,” Benson said.

During the Facebook Live event, Stebbins specifically praised Applebee’s as a business that was doing a good job of following public health rules implemented in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Do you guys have any information of an outbreak in my bar, in McCarthy’s Pub?” Hanson asked county officials Tuesday.

“As far as I know there’s been no information of an outbreak at your pub,” Emerson said.

Hanson also brought up the COVID-19 mitigation efforts being made by much larger corporate chains such as Walmart, which has previously been discussed at county commission meetings as the subject of complaints from some area residents.

“When it affects my business it gets personal, and if you guys can’t understand that, there’s a problem,” Hanson said. “I went into Walmart Sunday. There was 70 people that didn’t have a mask on. I walked around a counted every one of them. Pittsburg Police Department’s not in there making counts.”

Hanson said he would have liked to see county officials arrange a meeting with bar owners and others involved in that industry to come to an agreement on a workable COVID-19 mitigation plan, rather than simply issuing orders and sending police to check bars for compliance.

County Commissioner Bruce Blair asked other officials in attendance if something like that could still be done.

“That was my intention from the beginning before we started any sort of enforcement, because with your situation having one person [working at the bar], you have a different set of issues that others may not have, so we can talk that out,” Blair said. “I don’t know what the format looks like, but surely we can do it.”

Commissioner Tom Moody similarly said that communication with business owners, including bar owners, was important.

“I think that, you know, there has to be some type of open conversation where everybody’s on the same page,” he said.

“That’ll never happen, Tom,” Hanson said. “You’re picking on the small guy now.”

Hanson returned to the subject of Walmart in a couple of exchanges with Commissioner Johnson, during which Johnson defended the corporation’s response to the county government’s demands.

“They’re not getting letters like this at Walmart,” Hanson said.

“But they’re in conversation with our health officers,” Johnson said.

A few moments later, Hanson brought up Walmart again after Moody said there should be open conversation with businesses.

“If you’re sending letters to Walmart, then I’ll believe you,” Hanson said.

“Walmart doesn’t need a letter,” Johnson said. “They’re talking to us and working with us.”

Hanson asked why he hadn’t had an opportunity to talk and work with the county, and Johnson said there had been lots of opportunities. He also said COVID-19 mitigation requirements should be common knowledge as they have been in place in one form or another for months.

“I mean this has been going on since March, like this isn’t something new. […] I mean, we passed these rules back in September,” Johnson said.

Hanson said there has been “nobody complying completely” to the county’s demands.

“I’m going to fight for my business,” he said. “I’m going to fight for my patrons, OK? You start telling me about fines and things like that and stuff, then I realize it’s just a money grab, that’s all it is.”

Commissioner Moody said he disagreed.

“Well, I don’t think it’s a money grab,” he said. “Like I said, we don’t want to fine anybody, we just want some cooperation.”

Hanson said Wednesday that after speaking at the county commission meeting, he had received a “kind of amazing” amount of support from people reaching out to him through social media and calls to McCarthy’s, and he would be back again at Friday’s meeting. Later in Tuesday’s meeting, after Hanson left, Moody asked Pittsburg Area Chamber of Commerce President Blake Benson if the Chamber supported the mask mandate.

“We support it,” Benson said, adding that he could only speak for the Chamber itself rather than every business that may be a member. “But we understand and our board understands why it’s in place. It’s in place not only to protect our community but also to protect our employees and our customers. And we just appreciate your leadership, because I understand that any decision you make, somebody’s going to be upset and somebody's going to be very happy about it.”

The most important priority for businesses, Benson said, is clarity about the county’s expectations.

“That’s all I think our business community has asked for,” he said, “is that you very clearly communicate what’s expected out of them.”