EVANSVILLE— Convinced that some bars and nightclubs are willfully ignoring COVID-19 restrictions, Vanderburgh County will send in state and local undercover investigators next week and use their evidence to go after liquor and food licenses and possibly pursue criminal prosecutions.

The new offensive comes against a backdrop of soaring cases — Vanderburgh has reported 22 percent of its cases just in the past two weeks — and new encouragement to get tough from Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb's Nov. 13 executive order. Holcomb's order encourages state and local health and law enforcement agencies to "take all available administrative and enforcement actions" against businesses or entities that don't comply with public health requirements.

More: With Thanksgiving bearing down fast, Vanderburgh is feeling COVID-19 strain

The operation's target: 10-15 local establishments the Vanderburgh County Health Department believes are allowing and even encouraging patrons to disregard public health requirements.

The local agency is outgunned and outmanned in the fight against such establishments, County Attorney David Jones said, with most violations occurring late on weeknights and on weekends. The department has five environmental health specialists and a director who work weekday hours. They are also charged with permitting septic systems and tattoo parlors and conducting lead inspections, among other duties.

That means the evidence against the offending bars and nightclubs is anecdotal — and some of it, Jones said, is infuriating.

"What we’ve got is people that have taken pictures," he said. "In one case, the bar itself took the picture and posted it on social media. It just had a whole mass of people, all posing for a picture, not one of them having a mask on. They’re all in some big, 60,70-person group hug.

"It was just like, ‘Here, in your face.’ There's been several (establishments) that have done that."

Holcomb's order imposes strict standards.

Because Vanderburgh's status is classified as orange by the Indiana State Department of Health, gatherings of any kind, outdoors or indoors, must have no more than 50 people.

The order states that in restaurants, bars, taverns and nightclubs providing in-person food and/or drink service, patrons must remain seated while eating and/or drinking "or when otherwise remaining on the premises." It also says capacity limits are no longer based on a percentage of overall occupancy. Seating must be arranged "so that individuals, households, or parties are spaced at least six feet apart from any other individual, household or party."

PDF: Read Gov. Holcomb's Nov. 13 executive order

State officials and volunteers will man the operation

At mid-week, Jones and other county officials told the Courier & Press the plan was to hire a private security firm to send investigators into the targeted bars and nightclubs — but the attorney said Friday afternoon late-breaking developments may make that unnecessary.

"There are state officials that are coming down next week, and they're going to help us beef up these after-hour investigations, and that will be everybody from extra excise police to fire marshals," he said.

The Indiana State Department of Health will deploy investigators as well to "step up and go out," Jones said.

More: Vanderburgh County sets new one-day COVID-19 record with 184 cases

The professional investigators' work will be supplemented by a cadre of volunteers. Jones said there is no legal requirement that the undercover teams must be licensed law enforcement officers or investigators — not as long as they can produce credible evidence and testify in court.

And these volunteers are not inept vigilantes, Jones said. Some are military veterans.

"The most common thing I hear as pushback is, 'Well, if you don't want to catch COVID, don't go into those places,'" Jones said. "Well, you know what, if the people that are in there that aren't wearing masks and aren't socially distancing would stay in there, catch COVID and die, I wouldn't care.

"But they don't. They go home at night, and they get around other people, and they go to work the next day, and they do whatever. And that's how this stuff is spread."

One local agency definitely won't be involved in the new operation: the Vanderburgh County Sheriff's Office. Sheriff Dave Wedding said he won't lend any of his deputies' time to an issue that is largely civil, not criminal — and he doesn't necessarily think it's the best strategy anyway.

"I support trying to be safe, but I think people need to start taking responsibilities themselves," Wedding said. "They need to wear their mask, wash their hands and follow all the guidelines. If you’re not comfortable going out, by all means stay home."

It's not a sheriff's deputy's call to make lawyerly judgments about whether a mask is being worn properly and in the proper circumstances, Wedding said.

"I don’t want my deputies to be cast in a light of, ‘Were they in error, writing something," he said. "Now somebody’s got to litigate something because my person was mistaken about how they interpret something and wrote something. I don’t want us involved in that."

'The matter should be considered for referral to the local prosecuting attorney'

Holcomb's executive order outlines a series of steps that would be taken before the most serious action — verbal orders, cease and desist orders and orders to close. If the latter happens, the governor doesn't want it to stop there.

"If an order to close a business is issued, the business shall be reported to the Secretary of State and to any relevant licensing, permitting, or certifying board, commission or other entity for consideration of revocation proceedings," the order states.

What happens after that is up to local authorities — but Holcomb suggests an option.

The governor's order contains another clause that Jones plans to discuss with the visiting state officials next week. It says, "If an order to close a business is issued, the matter should be considered for referral to the local prosecuting attorney."

"Anybody that gets an order to close that keeps going is probably going to get referred for criminal prosecution and have a civil suit," the attorney said, adding that any criminal prosecution would pursue alleged misdemeanor violations of an executive order. "Plus, we'll also submit it to the local or state alcoholic beverage commission (with a recommendation) to suspend or revoke liquor licenses where appropriate."

The Vanderburgh County Health Department can lift food permits on its own authority, Jones said.

"The Secretary of State, I suppose, could take your corporate authority, and you can go on down the line from there," he said. "(Holcomb's order) has got some teeth to it.”

'We’ve got to do what we’ve got to do to get it under control'

Upon request, the local health department made available its logs of citations for violations of Holcomb's COVID-19 executive orders, cease and desist notices and two closures.

Documents: See the log of cease and desist notices

Administrator Joe Gries stressed that the establishments that were closed — Jimmy John's and Hornet's Nest Restaurant and Bar — "worked very hard and created a strong plan that included training and education for their staff" and consequently reopened.

But Gries also acknowledged that the 10-15 worst offenders can't be found in the logs' columns.

Those are populated by several kinds of businesses, from fast food restaurants to bars to convenience stores. The really serious, chronic offenses aren't there.

Jones would not name any of the 10-15 targeted bars and nightclubs. Gries said he can't name them. The evidence is just too anecdotal, given the health department's inability to infiltrate them at the right hours.

"We get calls, or people send in emails, send in pictures, different things. We don’t really compile all that," Gries said.

Dave Bush, owner of Marigold Bar in Evansville, is still annoyed that his establishment got dinged for a face covering violation.

A female employee wasn't wearing her mask when she exited a bathroom, Bush said. That's it.

"Now if she was waiting on a table or behind the bar, I think she should have had her mask on," he said. "But when she comes out of the bathroom, just because she didn’t have her mask on coming out of the bathroom, I think that was a little harsh."

Bush admitted he hasn't read the governor's new executive order. Marigold is “just a small neighborhood bar," he said.

"If they’re going to do it for one of us, they need to do it for all of us," he said. "I can’t control the people coming in my bar. I can put signs up, but I can’t make nobody. I guess I can throw them all out, but if they don’t want to leave, they’re not going to leave.

"I’d have to call the police. They're probably not coming out for masks."

The Courier & Press asked Bush if local authorities should crack down on bars and nightclubs if they believe those establishments are flouting public health policies designed to control COVID-19. He chuckled.

“Are you going to quote me? You going to quote me? Because I don’t want to get in the paper and get in a fight amongst my bar owner buddies," he said.

“I’ve got my own opinion about it all. And if you’re violating it all, doing that, then you know, shame on you. When you come in a bar, you’ve got to have your shoes on and shirt and all that — so now you’ve got to have shoes, shirt and a mask. So, got to live with it. We’ve got to do what we’ve got to do to get it under control."

Some form of this was tried before

The new proposed operation isn't as new as it sounds. The county tried this before, but Jones said fierce opposition apparently scuttled it.

"Now things just have gotten so out of control, it’s going to be revived," the attorney said.

In July, the Vanderburgh County Commissioners hired SL Green Services LLC of Evansville, which was incorporated in 2015 by Steve Green, a former Evansville Police Department officer.

The local company's job: enforcement of distancing, occupancy and mask requirements for businesses and employees which were part of Holcomb's plan to reopen the state. The contract was for $40 an hour.

But Green apparently ran into fierce opposition. The security consulting agreement wasn't followed up on. Steve Green did not return a phone message about the contract.

Jones was asked about rumors that some businesses threatened to sue the local company.

"I think there was some concern about that, and (the Green company's) issues with, you know, would their insurance cover a lawsuit," he said.

The Board of Commissioners approved the contract with Green by a 3-0 vote. But there was opposition, the Courier & Press reported then.

A few citizens who have been coming to city and county government meetings in protest of mask requirements said that to them, it seemed like excessive government intervention.

“Instead of caring about people and their rights, you get the feeling it’s an agenda that’s being pushed on us," Larry Herron said. "You’re scaring people.”

Jones pushed back on the notion that businesses have something to fear from the new state and local undercover operation. The targets are chronic violators who flout public health requirements.

"Nobody’s trying to harm any business or any individual that’s made a mistake, had a lapse, you know what I’m saying?" the attorney said. "But once you’ve been given three strikes, in anybody’s ballgame, you’re out. You’re out.

"It’s repetitive, it’s knowing. It’s not a mistake, it’s not an accident. You are flagrantly continuing to violate the law."

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