Businesses may soon face fines for not enforcing mask order

ST. JOSEPH COUNTY, Ind. - Mask up or pay up! That could be the new norm for businesses not enforcing the rules. Right now an ordinance to do just that is being drafted in St. Joseph County.

It comes after dozens of complaints against restaurants not enforcing the health department’s guidance.

If this ordinance is passed, it would mean that any business could be fined if let's say you walk in without a mask and they agree to serve you anyway. However, you personally wouldn’t be reprimanded but the owners of this business would.

A mask order went into effect in St. Joseph County in May meaning everyone who enters an enclosed space where social distancing of 6 feet isn’t possible like a restaurant or hardware store are required to wear a mask.

It’s all in an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus. However, there hasn’t been a way to really enforce this requirement – but there could be very soon.

“What we're proposing to do is to develop an ordinance that would allow us to impose fines for businesses that fail to, to enforce the mask order," Dr. Mark Fox, a Deputy Health Officer for the County Health Department said.

But what does this mean?

“If we pass an ordinance that that allows us to, you know, assign fines for non-compliance, then any of our inspectors, whether environmental health or food safety, could, you know, utilize that ordinance to impose a fine," he said.

If the ordinance is passed, it means any business could have to pay up, if they don’t make their customers follow the rules.

"We don't want it to be that easy, right. So it's got to be enough that it truly is a deterrent. But we have not established what that would be at this point," he said.

Local restaurant owner Jonathan Lutz said he is worried.

“Overall I think it’s unfortunate because there are a lot of small businesses that have been losing money now for quite a few months and we are all struggling to survive," Lutz said.

After months of closures, restaurants like uptown kitchen have now been allowed to reopen, with restrictions.

“We’re restricted on the number of tables we can seat which forces us to be in a negative situation already and now are we truly expected to be turning customers away if they come in without a mask? But those are the rules and we are doing the best we can to comply with all those restrictions," he said.

Having fixed costs, rent, utilities and now having to offer masks.

“It’s an added expense," he said.

Well, it’s frustrating for business owners like Lutz.

“If I want to run a business in a free country and a customer wants to come to my business in a free country knowing what inherent risks might exist. As long as we’re not hurting anyone else we should be able to do that in my option," he said.

We will only know how much these fines will be later on since the ordinance is still being drafted and will go before the Board of Health at their meeting on July 15th.

It will then have to be approved by the County Council and County Commissioners.

While some County Commissioners support the idea, others need more information.

“I fully support the health department's decision to establish fines on businesses if necessary. I prefer it not be that way because I figured 90% of the people are being responsible but there is 10% of the population not being responsible," Dave Thomas, the Commissioner for District 2 said.

“For me, it depends on what ordinance is presented before us. I’m more comfortable with employers mandating their employees wear masks. I’m concerned if we’re looking to fine business because their customers are not wearing a mask because that then puts the burden on a business that may not be able or properly trained to handle that burden," Andrew Kostielney, the President of the Board of Commissioners District 1 said.

Again, this still proposal still has a way until it gets approved.

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