Up until 2020, walking into a restaurant or crowded business was just a part of our everyday lives. Now, those crowded spaces have been spaced out.
Masks cover our faces and we’re paying more attention to the basics, like washing our hands.
Not everyone is following the rules health experts say will make the rest of us less likely to catch COVID-19.
Our 11 Investigates team has been tracking the issues at local restaurants that caught the attention of the Ohio Investigative Unit by combing through months of complaints and citations.
We've uncovered restaurants that have been accused of ignoring health orders, cases that have been traced back to specific restaurants and have found at least one serial offender in Toledo.
We focused on three restaurants. One has seen repeat complaints from people and a citation from the state since the spring.
Another has several complaints and COVID-19 cases linked directly to it.
And a third was named in the most recent round of citations.
Chapter one: Restaurant #1
The Polish Ostrich is a narrow music venue, bar and restaurant tucked into a West Toledo neighborhood.
It’s a popular hangout for anyone looking for live music and it’s on the hook for several complaints and a citation from the Ohio Investigative Unit for not following the coronavirus health orders.
Agents went undercover to take videos that lead to a citation in September.
The citation was for "a large crowd inside the bar with no social distancing measures in place and patrons standing and congregating in groups,” according to the OIU.
“They came in right at closing time when everyone was leaving and paying their tabs and I understand they were gathering in a parking lot that’s not even ours; it’s not our property,” Mary Kay Bunge, owner of the Polish Ostrich said.
Customers also reported seeing people without masks and not following social distancing guidelines twice in July, along with that large gathering spotted by the OIU.
Bunge says she’s hired private security and makes the bar close earlier now to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
"What we’ve decided and what we’ve changed to is that we’re doing last call at 9:30 and we’re closing at 10,” Bunge said.
State guidelines right now limit bars and restaurants from selling alcohol after 10 p.m.
All drinks must be off the tables by 11 p.m.
Bunge says doing last call earlier gives people more notice and more time to leave so they aren’t all crowding outside at once.
Chapter two: Restaurant #2
El Camino Real is a much larger space offering indoor and outdoor drinks and dining.
Even so, people have complained to the health department.
Last month, customers reported employees weren’t wearing masks or were wearing them on their chin instead of over their mouth and nose.
Contact tracers also tracked 12 COVID-19 positive customers who were at the restaurant when they could have been contagious.
11 Investigates went straight to manager Rafael Angel and asked what he is doing to avoid future issues.
Angel walked us around the restaurant.
Signs and hand sanitizer stations are all over.
The business also put up dividers inside and Angel says managers check employee temperatures daily.
Angel says they're also taking extra steps to make sure everyone is following the rules.
"I hired security up there to make sure we're enforcing to customers to wear a mask,” Angel said.
That's why Toledo Lucas County Health Commissioner Eric Zgodzinski says it's important people track their symptoms and alert the department when they test positive.
“I understand you need to live your life and do what you need to do, but do them again in a way that is helping the community out by not spreading COVID,” Zgodzinski said.
Chapter three: Restaurant #3
That’s not the case at the West Toledo bar and Mexican restaurant Vida Cantina according to the Ohio Investigative Unit.
Lucas County Health Department records show customers complained at least five times just in July about people not staying six feet apart, not wearing masks and packing the patio.
11 investigates obtained video of the patio from OIU investigators.
It shows an agent tries to walk from one end of the bar to the other.
It clearly shows patrons not wearing masks or social distancing.
The data we obtained from the Health Department shows Vida Cantina has received at least 5 complaints and has been connected to at least 10 Covid-19 cases.
The OIU just cited the restaurant along with the Polish Ostrich at the end of September.
Both will have to make their cases to Ohio Liquor and Control in order to keep their liquor licenses.
“If you’re being cited by OIU, and we’re talking to you and following up on complaints then again, you really need to change your practices because that’s not helping the community out,” Zgodzinski said.
11 Investigates reached out to Vida Cantina multiple times over the phone and in person. Each time we were told we needed to speak with the owners but they were not available.
We left messages and our contact information, but never heard back.
Chapter four: Tracking the Data
11 Investigates has been tracking this data for months.
We found one three-week period in July and August when the Toledo-Lucas County Health Department received over 700 Covid-19 related complaints about local businesses.
We also found another three-week period in September when that number dropped to just over 100 complaints.
By all accounts, that means a majority of businesses across Lucas County are now doing what they can to keep people from getting sick.
The health department takes and tracks complaints.
They can check on businesses and pass information along to the Ohio Investigative Unit who can then issue citations.
That formal process can ultimately lead to the restaurant’s liquor license being suspended.