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May 8, 2021

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Tacoma bar fined for repeated COVID-19 violations but still riling neighbors

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TACOMA — A Tacoma bar faces a fine or a five-day liquor license suspension for repeatedly failing to follow pandemic safety requirements, but neighbors say recent weekends have continued to be raucous.

Following an investigation that began last fall, the Washington Liquor and Cannabis Board on April 13 issued a $500 fine to An American Tavern, located at 744 Market St. downtown. The business must pay the penalty within 30 days or its license will be suspended June 3-7.

Spokesperson Julie Graham confirmed the agency is currently investigating additional complaints — 17 filed in two days, April 16-17. At the Governor’s Office, deputy communications director Mike Faulk said the state has received 90 complaints about An American Tavern as of April 19.

A photo shared with The News Tribune from Saturday, April 17 shows dozens of unmasked patrons standing in the bar’s patio, drinking and smoking cigarettes. Under the state’s phased reopening plan, customers at bars and restaurants can only sit at tables to eat and drink. The photo mirrors images of the bar from last October and November, when the liquor board issued two warnings and two citations for repeated violations.

The owners, Kyle Bidwell and Matt Vierela, could not immediately be reached for comment. According to its website, which says it was updated over the weekend, the bar is currently open Thursday through Sunday, 6 p.m. to midnight.

Neighbors said they feel powerless against not just the disregard for pandemic safety measures — and the effect those choices can have on the greater community — but also the raucous environment that follows, from audible fighting in the parking lot to intoxicated customers.

They said that before the pandemic, the bar, which opened in 2018, was an everyday neighborhood spot with live comedy shows and open mic nights. Since last spring, they say, it has morphed into a place known for ignoring social distancing and masking guidelines, which in turn has attracted a different crowd.

The Tacoma Police Department has been called to the bar more than a dozen times since August 2020 for reports of COVID-19 violations, noise complaints and fighting inside and in the parking lot. Liquor board agents previously noted the bar serving past the pandemic cutoff time, which is 11 p.m. in Phase 2 and midnight in Phase 3.

Recently, police responded to a call March 7 alleging eight males fighting outside around 1:25 a.m. They had apparently left in their cars by the time four officers arrived a few minutes later, according to the police report.

On March 27, an officer stopped at the location for a security check around 1:20 a.m. and did not find anything of note.

On April 10, the police received a call around 11:30 p.m. about an intoxicated male who fell and hit his head.

While neighbors said they are troubled by the lack of pandemic rules, they also point to incidents like that one as reason to be worried about the owners’ general approach to safe alcohol service.

That Pierce County was one of only three in the state to fall back to Phase 2 of Gov. Jay Inslee’s Healthy Washington plan exacerbates these issues, they said.

Case rates remain high, with more than 267 cases per 100,000 people over 14 days, according to the latest state Department of Health data. Additionally, younger residents are driving this surge, with those under the age of 50 accounting for nearly 70 percent of new cases.

On the city level, the code compliance team fielded at least one complaint about An American Tavern last fall, as did the tax and license department. The latter received a complaint again last weekend. Spokesperson Megan Snow said the department would “contact the owner and reiterate the COVID rules regarding gatherings and operating while in Phase 2.”

To escalate it further, the city refers residents to the state. There, the emergency operations team has received 90 complaints.

Asked if that number made An American Tavern an outlier, Mike Faulk in the governor’s office said the reasons could vary.

“For some it could be the length of time they’ve spent in violation. For others it could be the result of how much attention they generate for themselves,” he said. “But it definitely suggests a lot of people are concerned with what they’ve seen.”

The liquor board is investigating complaints filed last weekend.

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