Evansville Courier & Press
EVANSVILLE— Convinced that some bars and nightclubs are willfully ignoring COVID-19 restrictions, Vanderburgh County will send in state and local undercover investigators next week and use their evidence to go after liquor and food licenses and possibly pursue criminal prosecutions.
The new offensive comes against a backdrop of soaring cases — Vanderburgh has reported 22 percent of its cases just in the past two weeks — and new encouragement to get tough from Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb’s Nov. 13 executive order. Holcomb’s order encourages state and local health and law enforcement agencies to “take all available administrative and enforcement actions” against businesses or entities that don’t comply with public health requirements.
The operation’s target: 10-15 local establishments the Vanderburgh County Health Department believes are allowing and even encouraging patrons to disregard public health requirements.
The local agency is outgunned and outmanned in the fight against such establishments, County Attorney David Jones said, with most violations occurring late on weeknights and on weekends. The department has five environmental health specialists and a director who work weekday hours. They are also charged with permitting septic systems and tattoo parlors and conducting lead inspections, among other duties.
That means the evidence against the offending bars and nightclubs is anecdotal — and some of it, Jones said, is infuriating.
“What we’ve got is people that have taken pictures,” he said. “In one case, the bar itself took the picture and posted it on social media. It just had a whole mass of people, all posing for a picture, not one of them having a mask on. They’re all in some big, 60,70-person group hug.
“It was just like, ‘Here, in your face.’ There’s been several (establishments) that have done that.”
Holcomb’s order imposes strict standards.
Because Vanderburgh’s status is classified as orange by the Indiana State Department of Health, gatherings of any kind, outdoors or indoors, must have no more than 50 people.
The order states that in restaurants, bars, taverns and nightclubs providing in-person food and/or drink service, patrons must remain seated while eating and/or drinking “or when otherwise remaining on the premises.” It also says capacity limits are no longer based on a percentage of overall occupancy. Seating must be arranged “so that individuals, households, or parties are spaced at least six feet apart from any other individual, household or party.”
PDF: Read Gov. Holcomb’s Nov. 13 executive order
State officials and volunteers will man the operation
At mid-week, Jones and other county officials told the Courier & Press the plan was to hire a private security firm to send investigators into the targeted bars and nightclubs — but the attorney said Friday afternoon late-breaking developments may make that unnecessary.
“There are state officials that are coming down next week, and they’re going to help us beef up these after-hour investigations, and that will be everybody from extra excise police to fire marshals,” he said.
The Indiana State Department of Health will deploy investigators as well to “step up and go out,” Jones said.
The professional investigators’ work will be supplemented by a cadre of volunteers. Jones said there is no legal requirement that the undercover teams must be licensed law enforcement officers or investigators — not as long as they can produce credible evidence and testify in court.
And these volunteers are not inept vigilantes, Jones said. Some are military veterans.
“The most common thing I hear as pushback is, ‘Well, if you don’t want to catch COVID, don’t go into those places,'” Jones said. “Well, you know what, if the people that are in there that aren’t wearing masks and aren’t socially distancing would stay in there, catch COVID and die, I wouldn’t care.
“But they don’t. They go home at night, and they get around other people, and they go to work the next day, and they do whatever. And that’s how this stuff is spread.”
One local agency definitely won’t be involved in the new operation: the Vanderburgh County Sheriff’s Office. Sheriff Dave Wedding said he won’t lend any of his deputies’ time to an issue that is largely civil, not criminal — and he doesn’t necessarily think it’s the best strategy anyway.
“I support trying to be safe, but I think people need to start taking responsibilities themselves,” Wedding said. “They need to wear their mask, wash their hands and follow all the guidelines. If you’re not comfortable going out, by all means, stay home.”
It’s not a sheriff’s deputy’s call to make lawyerly judgments about whether a mask is being worn properly and in the proper circumstances, Wedding said.
“I don’t want my deputies to be cast in a light of, ‘Were they in error, writing something,” he said. “Now somebody’s got to litigate something because my person was mistaken about how they interpret something and wrote something. I don’t want us involved in that.”