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Restaurants and bars still walking on eggshells nearly a year into the pandemic, with some willing to break the rules

The Ohio Investigative Unit works to enforce COVID protocol. OIU is adamant its agents don't target any specific location and that most visits are complaint-based.

PORT CLINTON, Ohio — During this coronavirus pandemic, more than 400,000 people have died across the United States, with some 25 million people who have gotten sick.

The virus has also cost businesses billions of dollars.

Now, nearly one year into the pandemic, there some local restauranteurs say they're not going to follow the state-mandated COVID-19 guidelines.

RELATED: 11 Investigates: Restaurants rack up COVID-19 safety complaints, make changes

Meanwhile, others feel they are walking on eggshells and are worried about being targeted.

Undercover video we obtained from the Ohio Investigative Unit shows customers not following the COVID-19 guidelines inside The Lagoon Saloon in Port Clinton.

In a spreadsheet document, the OIU lists the violations as after-hours consumption and sales, and improper conduct.  

We visited The Lagoon Saloon on a Tuesday night in January and when you take a look at the outside, it's quiet; tucked away from any main road. 

While it gained attention for the violations from the state, loyal customers know it for its pizza and view of Lake Erie.

"I bought this business in May 2006 and every year's been getting better and better, except for this year. I mean people blame the pandemic, but I blame the politicians. So, and, it's been devastating. Without the PPP or the loans, we couldn't be surviving right now," said DJ Coles, owner of The Lagoon Saloon.

And by the tone of his voice, you can tell he's frustrated with all the COVID-19 regulations and guidelines he says threaten his business daily.

"This is my livelihood. This is how I pay my bills," said Coles. 

If you drive about an hour northwest, away from The Lagoon Saloon, you'll find La Chalupa in Point Place.

Manager/server, Jazmin Carmona, explains it's tough running the business with built-in expenses due to COVID-19.  

"COVID has affected us in a lot of ways. You know, it's been very, very hard to keep our doors open for our customers. We have to follow so many regulations. Like tonight is a Friday night and normally we'd be really busy, packed," said Carmona, "but you know, we haven't been really busy."

Nights like these, where you see mostly empty tables, are disheartening for Carmona and the family-owned restaurant. 

On top of that, La Chalupa and The Lagoon Saloon have been slapped with costly citations from the Ohio Investigative Unit.

"The violation happened back in March of 2020. Supposedly, what we did wrong is that we were selling 32 ounces of the margaritas when we weren't allowed and permitted to sell them. But there was an anonymous caller that called in and reported that we were selling the 32 ounces when we were allowed and permitted to sell them. But supposedly we weren't allowed and permitted to sell them," said Carmona. 

Carmona says she even checked in with the Toledo-Lucas County Health Department to ask if La Chalupa was following regulations. 

Her belief was that the restaurant was complying with all guidelines after Gov. Mike DeWine gave the green light allowing drinks to be sold "to go." 

OHIO COVID-19 RULES

Eric Wolf, an enforcement commander with the OIU, says most businesses are doing everything to abide by the regulations, but there are others that are clearly breaking the rules.

"Most of these locations that have received these citations, you walk through the door and there's just, you can tell the persons are packed in," said Wolf. "They're standing two or three deep sometimes at the bar. Shoulder to shoulder, waiting for drinks, wandering around the premises with drinks in hand."

Based on state health orders, restaurants and bars must follow strict rules.

The rules include a ban on alcohol sales after 10 p.m., social distancing and customers and staff wearing masks when actively eating or drinking.

Rules the owner of The Lagoon Saloon says he feels just aren't fair.

"Very infuriating because the state issues us a license, so I would think that would be what regulates and governs our business to operate. But they feel otherwise. And so, I just feel it's discriminatory and it's arbitrarily unfair for us," said Coles. 

Wolf says the level of compliance is what dictates if a location will receive a citation or not.

"We've received three citations. The first was a $400 fine. That's for the 10 o'clock last-serve call. And then the second one was the same thing. And then the third one was like at 8 o'clock. It was the most recent. And that was for people not wearing masks or social distancing," said Coles. 

RELATED: Lagoon Saloon in Port Clinton cited for 3rd time for violating coronavirus health orders

FEELING TARGETED

Carmona and Coles strongly believe the punishments are too harsh and that they're being targeted.

Wolf is adamant that it's not the agents, but other businesses following the rules or patrons calling in repeatedly.

"The Ohio Investigative Unit is not targeting any specific location. Most of these visits that are taking place are all complaint-based. So, as we receive multiple complaints about a location, we will visit them multiple times," said Wolf. 

Since March 15 of last year, the OIU has made more than 25,000 visits to liquor permit businesses. Of those, more than 4,000 were curfew visits. 

And they've received more than a thousand complaints related to health orders.

Out of those visits and complaints, 347 citations were issued.

Note that agents have the ability to only give a warning. In Toledo alone, they've made 31.

But if you receive a violation, it could cost you hundreds, if not thousands of dollars in fees or even your liquor license.

"Yes, we have had locations across Ohio that have lost their licenses because of repeated violations and basically statements made by these permit holders that they were not going to follow these department of health orders," said Wolf. 

WHO DOLES OUT PUNISHMENT

In the end, it's up to the Ohio Liquor Control Commission to hand out the punishment.

Places like La Chalupa have ended up paying thousands.

Carmona says they're doing everything possible to keep from being slapped with another violation.

"We haven't had any more citations, you know. We've been following all the regulations and the rules. So we don't get any more citations anymore," said Carmona. 

But then there are business owners like DJ Coles, who says his customers are old enough to make decisions for themselves and he's willing to bend the rules in order to keep the doors open.

"So, I offer the Ohio Investigative Unit one meeting if they want to pay my mortgage and my insurance and my utilities, 'til it's safe to reopen. I would gladly do that. But they're not gonna do that," said Coles.