Three Kent bars referred to state investigators for repeated COVID-19 violations

157 Lounge on South Water Street in downtown Kent was referred to the Ohio Investigative Unit for being out of compliance during 10 COVID-19 safety check-ins conducted from mid-June through mid-Sept. A main issue was that employees consistently failed to enforce mask wearing for customers and staff.

Three bars in downtown Kent, 157 Lounge, Ray’s Place and The Pub in Kent, have been referred to the Ohio State Highway Patrol for investigation after repeatedly being found out of compliance with critical COVID-19 requirements. 

During compliance checks in July, August and September, the Kent City Health Department (KCHD) reported the establishments failed to enforce mask wearing and social distancing, among other mandatory COVID-19 prevention requirements. 

Businesses found violating the rules three or more times are referred to the Ohio Investigative Unit (OIU), said Joan Seidel, Kent City Health Commissioner. 

The OIU is the division of the state patrol tasked with conducting investigations to determine if establishments holding liquor permits are following laws and regulations. It also helps check to see if orders issued by the Ohio Department of Health, including the COVID-19 regulations issued as part of the Dine Safe Ohio order, are followed. 

The OIU received the referrals for the three bars, said Eric Wolf, the unit’s enforcement commander. 

After processing referrals, the OIU sends fully sworn plainclothes agents to investigate complaints and issue citations for violations, if necessary. If a bar owner receives a citation, the Ohio Liquor Control Commission will hear their case to determine if the situation warrants a punishment. Possible penalties range from fines to the suspension or revocation of a liquor license.

The vast majority of restaurants are doing a good job with COVID-19 regulations, Wolf said.  “The citations we issue are a small percentage of the situations we send agents to investigate.” 

Akron’s Highland Tavern became the first bar to have its license completely revoked Aug. 14. 


Health inspectors conducted 10 check-ins at 157 Lounge on S. Water Street from mid-June through mid-Sept. and found the club out of compliance with multiple requirements each time. 

One of the main issues was employees consistently failed to enforce mask wearing for customers and staff. Reports from June 21, July 2 and July 19 stated the owner, bouncer, and a bartender were not wearing masks while speaking with and serving customers. During check-ins on Aug. 20, Sept. 11 and Sept. 18, masks continued to be an issue. On those dates, health inspectors observed employees and a DJ not wearing face coverings correctly or wearing them at all. 

Ohio’s COVID-19 regulations ask bars to ensure customers are seated while consuming food and beverages to prevent opportunities for the virus to spread while customers are mingling. But during seven of 10 check-ins, 157 Lounge staff allowed customers to stand and move through the building without face coverings while consuming their drinks. 

During three check-ins, health inspectors also noted staff did not limit parties to 10 or enforce social distancing between customer groups. 

Notably, on July 30, inspectors reported that an out-of-control customer who was assumed to be COVID-19 positive was physically removed from the building. Inspectors were told that on his way out, he spit on the front door. Though the inspectors did not see this occur, they did witness the man leaving the building. “Employees and managers did not demonstrate urgency to clean and disinfect the area [where the man spit], claiming it was police evidence,” the report stated.

While reports from Aug. 20, Aug. 25 and Sept. 17 documented a significant decline in COVID-19 violations, noting that “overall, managers and staff have improved [their] efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” violations were not eliminated altogether at 157 Lounge.

157 Lounge management did not return several calls requesting comment. 


Enforcing COVID-19 rules in college towns like Kent “where the crowd is younger and less happy to comply” may be more difficult, said Andy Herf, executive director of the Ohio Licensed Beverage Association, an organization that protects and advances the interests of Ohio’s liquor permit holders. 

Still, business owners have “the responsibility to do everything they can to prevent the spread of a sometimes deadly disease,” Herf said, emphasizing the majority of the regulations are “reasonable and ultimately workable so that businesses can continue to stay open.” 

The one health department rule he finds arbitrary and unfair is the one that bans alcohol sales past 10 p.m., which causes bars—even those in compliance—to lose four hours of sales. According to the check-in reports, the sale of alcohol past 10 p.m. has not been an issue for Kent’s bars and restaurants.  

Ohio’s decision to not place capacity limits on bars is one reason Herf said they’ve been able to reopen successfully. Unlike other states such as Virginia and Michigan, which limited restaurant capacity to 50% during certain reopening phases, Ohio bars can have as many customers as they have the space for, so long as everyone can spread out. 

State and local governments seem to “have an eye toward” helping bars and restaurants succeed, Herf said. This summer, the Division of Liquor Control processed applications for more than 2,000 outdoor patios, in addition to DORA permits, which he said is an “unheard of” number. 

Likewise, the majority of the health boards Herf works with also helped bars comply with the COVID-19 regulations so they could remain in business. 

“At first, there were some growing pains, but most establishments figured it out,” he said.

At the beginning of the pandemic, much of the KCHD’s focus was on educating restaurant owners about the safest practices possible. It began documenting violations in June. 

Seidel has the power to close a restaurant “in urgent unsafe conditions,” but that would usually involve serious violations regarding food safety, such as serving spoiled food, not meeting temperature requirements, or having a broken refrigerator or dishwasher.

For her, revoking a bar’s liquor license would only be a last resort if customers were in immediate danger. 

“We’re not trying to close businesses down,” Seidel said. “We want them to be safe and successful.” 

From mid-June to mid-September, inspectors from the KCHD conducted more than 100 COVID-19 check-ins at about 30 downtown Kent businesses. Some check-ins were conducted in response to complaints they received, and other check-ins were conducted at random.

When the health inspectors go out to perform a check-in, they visit bars and restaurants in close proximity to each other during their peak business hours, usually from 9:00 to 10:30 p.m. or 12:30 to 1:30 a.m., Seidel said. If a bar or restaurant wasn’t inspected, that means it was closed during the times the inspectors were in the area. The COVID-19 prevention check-ins are supplemental and go “above and beyond” the typical three-hour food safety inspections conducted at restaurants, she said.  

Seidel said the reports offer a limited picture of how well the restaurants are complying. 

“The reports are just a snapshot, a point in time,” she said. “Even the best-run restaurants can have an off-night. Mix of staff could have created an atmosphere where mistakes were made, and it’s unintentional.” 


For instance, the snapshot of Ray’s Place on Franklin Avenue from Aug. 20 found some kitchen staff members weren’t wearing masks as they worked with food.

Though owner Charlie Thomas was not sure what happened the night of that inspection, he chalked it up to a “one-time fluke,” and said, “Our procedure here is everybody has to wear a mask, customers and staff. If they don’t have one, we give it to them.”

One of his kitchen workers has an asthmatic condition, Thomas said, which exempts them from wearing a mask. He also referenced an order issued by the state on May 29 that said in certain circumstances, such as when employees are working on the grill line in extreme heat, it is not necessary to wear a mask.

Seidel said those are valid exemptions, but in the Aug. 20 instance, inspectors spotted unmasked staff members at the kitchen window, not on the grill line. Kitchen staff were observed without masks again during a check-in on Sept. 11.

Ray’s Place was also found out of compliance with COVID-19 requirements during its July check-in because Plexiglas barriers between the booths were not tall enough. During a check-in on Sept. 17, the violation was still uncorrected, which prompted inspectors to refer the restaurant for investigation. 

Thomas said he did not understand why the barriers were problematic, since the same ones at his other restaurant, Ray’s Place of Fairlawn, passed an inspection with Summit County Public Health. The barriers in both restaurants measure 51 inches tall. 

The issue for Ray’s in Kent is guidelines vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. The governor permitted local health departments to create the standards for compliance in their communities,  and the KCHD determined the proper height to be 60 inches. In their report, inspectors recommended that, until the barriers are up to the KCHD’s standards, Ray’s Place seat customers at every other booth in order to ensure adequate distance between customer groups. 

Apart from the issues with the barriers and the masks, “overall, the employees are trying their best to comply with the COVID-19 requirements,” inspectors wrote in their Sept. 18 report. 


The third bar referred for investigation, The Pub in Kent on Franklin Ave., was out of compliance during its last seven COVID-19 check-ins. Three reports found that customers and staff members were not wearing face coverings correctly or wearing them at all, although restaurant management corrected this when the health department arrived. 

In three reports, including one from Sept. 11, staff members seated parties of 10 or more, which violates the mandatory health guidelines. The Sept. 11 report and the most recent one from Sept. 18 found the inside bar area was overcrowded and groups were not maintaining proper distance from each other. 

Also on Sept. 11, multiple customers were standing while consuming their beverages. While staff and managers were doing their best to enforce requirements, some customers would not comply, the inspectors reported. 

“It’s absurd that a bar would have to keep saying, ‘No, sit down. No, sit down,’” Herf said of customers who continually ignore the rules. Potentially, their actions could jeopardize the owners’ livelihoods and result in the closure of one of their favorite places. 

At some restaurants, “you can tell that there’s an effort being made, but the customers just don’t care, no matter who is yelling at them,” said Justin Smith, KCHD Chief Sanitarian. 

“It’s harder for restaurants to manage people who don’t understand the restrictions or feel like they have to comply,” he said. When management confronts customers about their behavior, they risk that the customer may not come back which “puts the problem onto the restaurant or bar.” 

Compliance was hit and miss at Panini’s Bar & Grill on South Water Street and BarFlyy on Erie Street in August. While both bars were found in compliance on Aug. 25, they struggled to enforce social distancing and masks for customers and limit party size during other August check-ins. 

This month, BarFlyy improved, with the bar passing compliance check-ins on Sept. 11 and 17. Inspectors also thanked employees for working to correct issues in the Sept. 18 report. Conversely, the Sept. 11 and 17 Panini’s reports found that problems with overcrowding and mask enforcement persisted. 

Managers at The Pub in Kent, Panini’s and BarFlyy did not return calls for comment. 

Herf often reminds the bar owners he works with that having a liquor license is a privilege, not a right. The government has outlined clear expectations for how bars can keep their license during the pandemic, he said. “If you want to stay in business, follow the order. It’s not going to end well if you don’t.”

The student population also plays a role in making reopening during a pandemic work, Herf said. 

“It’s a natural thing to stand up with a drink and talk to your friends—who, by the way, you may not have seen in months,” he said. But customers need to realize there is more at stake than their own health if they don’t follow COVID-19 guidelines when they go to a bar. Some owners have their financial well-being on the line.  

“If you like a place, follow the law,” Herf said. “Don’t be the reason they get shut down.”