The Erie County Department of Health has closed several bars and restaurants for allegedly not following COVID-19 regulations, and county lawmakers want to know if the shutdowns were justified.
The Legislature’s Republican Caucus on Tuesday proposed the Business Closure Reporting Act, which would require county officials to submit a “report of justification” to the Legislature within 48 hours of ordering a business to close. The report would include a detailed explanation of why the business was closed, all evidence collected and a copy of the official closure order.
Minority Leader Joseph Lorigo, C-West Seneca, said he and his fellow minority members support public health efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19, but need to make sure the county is treating bars and restaurants fairly.
“We're not saying that some of these businesses that have been closed shouldn't have been closed,” he said during a press conference Tuesday at the Rath Building. “What we're saying is there needs to be more accountability and transparency when businesses are closed.”
The genesis of the law was a tense exchange between Lorigo and Erie County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein during a July 14 Legislature committee meeting.
Burstein could not tell Lorigo exactly why she had ordered the shutdown of The Cowboy bar in downtown Buffalo just a few days prior. She apologized for not having the details “at (her) fingertips,” but promised to eventually provide him with the information.
“That set up the red flags that we identified,” said Legislator Edward Rath III, R-Amherst. “We realized, ‘OK, we need to have some type of system, some type of process, some type of review of why these restaurants are being closed.’”
Burstein’s public information officer, Kara Kane, said Tuesday that the county Health Department is currently reviewing the proposed law.
The county Health Department does post its inspection reports on the HealthSpace website, however, Lorigo said the online reports don’t give enough detail, or explain why a shutdown was justified over a warning.
For example, the county’s report on the shutdown of Kaz’s in Blasdell simply said patrons were walking around without wearing masks and told county inspectors they should be ashamed of themselves and leave.
“Then lo and behold, the restaurant was shut down. But without a report of justification, we don't know if that was unfair, if there were other issues that existed,” Lorigo said. “All we see is a very short description of what might have happened.”
Between six to nine county bars and restaurants have been shut down, at least temporarily, by both the county and State Liquor Authority since the pandemic began, according to Lorigo. The Buffalo News reported that three county bars and restaurants have been ordered closed since bars and restaurants could resume dine-in services in June.
Establishments must submit a reopening plan to the county before resuming business. Lorigo said it’s been taking the county about three to five days to approve reopening plans.
Legislators argue now is not the time to overly penalize bars and restaurants, which could only offer takeout and delivery for three months, and now have to operate at 50% capacity.
The Independent Restaurant Coalition estimates up to 85% of independent restaurants could close by the end of the year without federal aid. Review site Yelp says 24,000 of its listed restaurants are closed, and more than half of those are permanently closed.
“Closing down a business should be a last resort for government,” Lorigo said. “We should be helping businesses right now, not hurting them.”
Legislators said they expect the proposed law to receive support from their Democratic colleagues in the Majority Caucus. A public hearing will have to be held before the law can be put to a vote.