FAYETTEVILLE -- Long lines outside a bar usually indicate exclusivity.
These days, they could be caused by waiting until enough people leave to maintain social distancing inside.
State Alcoholic Beverage Control board agents, city fire marshals and police officers keep watch over downtown nightlife to ensure people and bar staff follow health directives regarding the covid-19 pandemic. On any given weekend, 10 to 12 such officials are out on Dickson Street and the square.
The people in charge of inspecting businesses, enforcing health regulations and maintaining public safety say bar employees and customers for the most part are following the rules. However, officials can't be everywhere at once.
Two agents from the state work in the city and give warnings or citations to businesses for not following state directives such as wearing masks and staying socially distanced. Three businesses have been issued citations during the pandemic.
Fire marshals monitor occupancy, enforcing the two-third capacity rule set by Gov. Asa Hutchinson and the state
Department of Health.
Police keep an eye on people outside, do walk-throughs inside businesses and respond to any complaints. They also call the agents or fire marshals to check out potential health violations.
The city could have 50 officers on Dickson and, even with every bar following the rules perfectly, the responsibility of public health and safety falls on individuals, said Jeremy Ashley, battalion chief and a city fire marshal.
Sometimes a bar can adhere to the capacity rule, but still have too many people inside, Ashley said. That's especially true of smaller establishments. If a fire marshal sees people too close together, he'll tell the bar staff not to let anyone in until a certain number of people have left.
Fire marshals see bar staff as partners, Ashley said.
"We've had zero pushback from any of the bars or bouncers or managers when we make those kinds of assessments," he said. "Nobody wants to be open more than they do. They all understand what's at risk."
Fire marshals have the authority to write a ticket for occupancy violations or close a place. It hasn't come to that, Ashley said.
There are times when a bar gets overcrowded and a video of it circulates over the internet. Ashley said he's seen those videos. The behavior is uncommon even though the videos give an impression that sort of behavior is common, he said.
At the scene
Two anonymous Twitter accounts, AR COVID-19 Fails and UArk COVID-19 Fails, have been sharing photos and videos of people who appear to be breaking health guidelines downtown and on campus.
Large groups can be seen clustering outside around the West Avenue and Watson Street area, many not wearing masks. Photos show lines of people melding together on the narrow sidewalk on the north side of Dickson Street. Greek life students are shown taking pictures in close proximity without masks or otherwise gathering indoors.
Videos circulated on social media accounts last week of students playing in or near the fountain next to Razorback Stadium after someone put soap in the water. Most weren't wearing masks and were in close proximity.
The university has made an extensive effort to get students to wear face coverings, keep 6 feet apart, wash hands and avoid crowds in public, said Mark Rushing, associate vice chancellor for university relations. Administrators communicate with students regularly, he said.
"I think students, faculty and staff have done a really good job of following the university's guidelines while on campus, but it's those behaviors off campus that are most concerning," Rushing said. "We have to be relentless in wearing masks, keeping physical distance and avoiding crowds on and off campus or the virus will continue to spread."
On Friday, Interim Provost Charles Robinson wrote a letter saying the number of covid cases at the university is too high.
The university had 639 active cases as of Friday, according to the Pat Walker Health Center's online dashboard. Reporting sources include on-campus testing, student self-reported positive cases and any additional positive reports from the Arkansas Department of Health. A mass testing event was held Tuesday through Thursday on campus.
Subsequently, the university banned on-campus events not associated with academics or athletics until Sept 18. In addition, the Office of Student Standards and Conduct will issue student conduct violations for gatherings of 10 or more students on or off campus, including at downtown businesses.
Preliminary enrollment totals for this year aren't yet available. Last fall, the university enrolled 27,559 students.
Hutchinson in news conferences last week said the majority of new positive covid cases in Washington County were among young adults. On Friday, 82% of the 215 new cases in the county were among people 18 to 24 years old. On Thursday, 81% of 211 new cases in the county were in that age group.
"I think it can safely be surmised that many of those new cases are college students," Hutchinson said Thursday. "It's just a signal we have a lot of work to do here in Arkansas, that the virus is still out in our community in various ways and we have to protect each other. We have to follow these guidelines."
The Dickson Street crowd looked a far cry about 11 p.m. on a recent Friday from the typical first weekend of the fall semester. The scene was bustling, but not busy.
A single hula-hooper twirled in front of a disc jockey at West & Watson, spaced out from others in the bar. Places that have outdoor seating had far more people sitting outside than inside. Businesses with indoor-only space had small clusters of people at tables, which were spaced out. Some played pool. Others just stood there.
Mask-wearing was less frequent outside, especially in the lines of people waiting. Fayetteville police asked those in the line outside Yeehawg at 402 W. Dickson St. to space out and gave away masks to anyone who wanted one.
Drew Jones, 27, of Fayetteville said he's gone out a handful of times to Dickson Street since May, when the state allowed bars to open with limitations following mandated closing in March. Crowds started growing once students began returning to campus last month, he said. He suspects the occupancy limit inside the bars is forcing people to wait outside on a sidewalk with not much room to space out and people trying to walk past.
"If there's a line, I don't go," he said.
Jones said he prefers bars with large outdoor areas and patio tables spaced out. The few times he's gone inside, he's seen small groups of people who came in together stay together, for the most part. Bar staff has been adamant about everyone inside wearing a mask, he said.
The whole arrangement makes mingling more difficult, resulting in a far different vibe from a typical weekend night downtown, Jones said. There's no way to forget a pandemic is happening, he said.
"It's definitely in the back of your mind," Jones said. "You're not so carefree about it, but you're also trying to have a good time."
Since students began returning to campus Aug. 11, Alcoholic Beverage Control agents have issued one violation related to covid-19 behavior. Big, formerly known as Stir, was cited Aug. 22 for having a large crowd at the bar area with no social distancing and a lack of masks.
Big also was cited July 24 for failure to be a good neighbor, which carries a $500 fine, and failure to follow health and safety standards, a $100 fine. Yeehawg received the same two citations on the same date. Cannibal and Craft got the same citations July 19.
Scott Hardin, spokesman for the state Department and Finance Administration, which oversees the Alcoholic Beverage Control board, said "failure to be a good neighbor" is a general category for not following a variety of state Health Department guidelines. Most places that get cited for covid-related offenses get those two violations, amounting to a $600 fine and the businesses being on a 60-day probationary period, he said.
A verbal warning precedes a citation, Hardin said. Punishment gets steeper on repeat violations. A second round of violations can result in fines of up to $1,500 and an extended probationary period. Liquor permit suspension or revocation is the maximum penalty. Businesses can appeal any violations, resulting in a hearing before the control board.
About 160 of the 1,500 compliance visits agents have done statewide during the pandemic have taken place in Fayetteville, Hardin said.
Dave Bass owns Big and Yeehawg and said he intends to appeal the citations his businesses received. He questioned the manner in which the agents obtained evidence and ambiguity in the rules.
"They told us they weren't going to allow congregating at the bar," Bass said. "Well, I'm not sure what that means. Does that mean five people? Ten people? Sixty people? Nobody knows."
Bass said he's told his staff to hold occupancy lower than the two-thirds capacity allowed, just to be safe. Big, for instance, could hold up to about 200 people under the limited occupancy rule, but no more than 80 are being allowed inside, he said.
Bass said he suspects his places are getting more attention because lines typically form outside and are visible from the street. What happens outside is beyond his control, he said.
"We have more people outside waiting to get in than we do inside," he said.
Clinicians in Fayetteville have started noticing an increase in positive test results among university students and downtown workers, said Marti Sharkey, the city's public health officer.
Sharkey said it's important for patrons to stay mindful of the health guidelines. People are allowed to take off their masks with a drink in front of them, for instance. But most people at a bar have a drink in front of them the whole time they're there, she said. People tend to lean in close at a bar to hear one another, making spread possible, Sharkey said.
However, it's also important for the bars to be able to stay open to survive the pandemic, she said. People following the rules helps accomplish that, she said.
Sharkey emphasized that being outside diminishes the potential to spread the virus, but doesn't make someone immune. The city's outdoor refreshment area, which enables people to take drinks and walk around downtown outside, ends at 10 p.m. Young people tend to come out after that time on the weekends. Those waiting in line outside to go to a bar need to keep their masks on, she said.
The city put out a news release last week reminding residents police and fire marshals would be out enforcing covid-related health directives and educating people on the rules during the Labor Day weekend. The announcement came as a response to resident complaints of patrons not wearing masks or maintaining appropriate distance from others.
Some universities across the country paused or altogether stopped in-person classes after seeing a spike in positive covid-19 cases.
The University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill closed in-person instruction after less than a week. The university started classes Aug. 10, but by Aug. 16, went to purely online instruction after 177 students tested positive within a few days, according to the New York Times. Enrollment is about 30,000 students.
The University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., shifted online after about a week of on-campus instruction. So far, the school has reported more than 500 positive cases. Daily positive cases fell after peaking at 273 new cases Aug. 17-19, according to the university's online dashboard. In-person classes resumed Wednesday. Enrollment is about 12,000 students.
However, the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa reported more than 1,200 positive cases among students after fewer than two weeks of classes resuming, according to its online dashboard. The university consolidated student housing to make room to quarantine students and banned student events, but campus has remained open, according to Al.com, the shared website of the state's major newspapers. Enrollment is about 38,000 students.
The University of Missouri in Columbia, about five hours north of Fayetteville, reported more than 400 cases within a week of opening Aug. 24. Enrollment is about 30,000 students. Bars and restaurants in the city are now closing earlier.
Stacy Ryburn can be reached by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @stacyryburn.
• Restaurants and bars must limit number of customers to two-thirds of capacity.
• Tables must be 10 feet apart so customers will be seated 6 feet away from other tables.
• Each employee who directly interacts with customers must wear a face mask covering the nose and mouth. Backing staff and others are encouraged to wear a mask.
• Employees prepping food or drink must wear gloves. Gloves should be changed between each customer, customer group or task.
• Management must screen all employees before they enter for work. An employee with a cough, sore throat, fever or shortness of breath must not enter.
• Customers must wear a face covering until the food or drink is served.
• Self-serve features are closed.
• Groups must be 10 or fewer customers.
• Tables and chairs will be cleaned and disinfected after each customer.
• Restrooms should be disinfected frequently.
• Service may be declined to customers not wearing masks.
Source: arkansasready.com, healthyarkansas.com
Stacy Ryburn can be reached by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @stacyryburn.