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Fargo bars avoid penalties for violating mask, capacity rules

Liquor Control board takes no action

The Empire Tavern and Empire Liquors in downtown Fargo on Friday, April 13, 2018. David Samson / The Forum
The Empire Tavern and Empire Liquors are seen April 13, 2018, in downtown Fargo. Forum file photo

FARGO — Two Fargo bars that failed pandemic compliance checks for mask and capacity rules during tight regulations in November and December escaped penalties at the Wednesday, Jan. 20, city Liquor Control Board meeting.

Police Chief David Zibolski said the two "troublesome" bars were The Empire Tavern in downtown Fargo on Broadway and the Africa International Restaurant and Night Club, 4554 7th Ave. E.

Officials earlier wouldn't release the names of the two operations that faced possible fines or license suspensions.

Zibolski said Africa in December made several changes to its operation to comply and that there had been no issues since.

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Africa International Restaurant and Night Club is slated to open this summer in the former JT Cigarro's at 4554 7th Ave E. in Fargo. David Samson / The Forum

The Empire, he said, had more significant masking and capacity issues after Gov. Doug Burgum's restrictions went into effect on Nov. 16. For 60 days bars and restaurants had their capacity restricted to 50%. Until Dec. 22 they were also required to close at 10 p.m.

Since December, however, Zibolski said his officers found no further violations at the downtown bar and liquor store, which he said eventually adjusted to the rules.

"My opinion would have been different 30 days ago," Zibolski said about any punishment such as a possible short-term liquor license suspension or fine. "But at this juncture, I recommend no additional action."

The two other board members at the meeting, City Auditor Steve Sprague and Fargo Cass Public Health Environmental Health official Grant Larson, agreed.

Sprague said they were simply going to receive and file the report, with no report to the Fargo City Commission.

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The other two members of the five-member board, City Commissioners Dave Piepkorn and Tony Gehrig, weren't at the meeting.

In an interview after the meeting, Mayor Tim Mahoney said he thought it was "the right thing to do" to not impose any penalties on the two bars. He said they were in compliance in recent weeks and that the police chief had "good discussions" with the operators.

During the tight restrictions as COVID-19 cases soared across the state, Zibolski said his officers did "a couple hundred" compliance checks at many of the 200 bars and restaurants with city liquor licenses. He said some of the visits were prompted by complaints.

Zibolski said his officers for the most part saw a lot of businesses cooperate "on their own volition or through education" when they visited or discovered any violations.

Burgum has gradually eased bar and restaurant regulations statewide, and now capacity mandates are being treated as recommendations rather than rules. The governor said he knows of no businesses or people who have been fined for not following the state's guidelines.

Under North Dakota's current moderate "yellow" COVID-19 risk designation, the state still recommends bars and restaurants limit capacity to 65%, with masking still required in Fargo. Officials also recommend social distancing, which is in part achieved by putting 6-foot spaces between tables and closing dance floors.

Burgum also has lifted the statewide mask mandate, but still strongly supports wearing the coverings, saying cities could still require their own mandates. Fargo's runs through mid-February.

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