By: Alyssa Dandrea, Concord Monitor
Waiters and waitresses without face masks serving food.
Dining tables and menus not sanitized between each customer use.
Lobbies crowded with people waiting for takeout orders.
The consumer complaints alleging violations of New Hampshire’s coronavirus guidelines total in the hundreds, and they continue to roll in daily. Most frequently people report eateries because employees are not wearing faces masks – or wearing them below the nose or on the chin – and because there is a perceived lack of social distancing, a Monitor right-to-know request found.
Since May, the vast majority of complaints have fallen into the hands of the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office, which established a phone number and email to handle concerns about Gov. Chris Sununu’s executive orders on the coronavirus and reopening guidelines for businesses. Several of the office’s victim-witness advocates receive consumers’ complaints, follow up with the reporting parties and reach out to business owners each time an allegation is brought forward. The goal is always to gain voluntary compliance.
Of the complaints received so far, most were resolved after business owners took steps to rectify the issues brought to their attention, Associate Attorney General Anne Edwards said in a recent interview. However, the attorney general’s office has flagged a handful of businesses in the state, including Makris Lobster and Steak House in Concord, where prosecutors say violations of government orders persist despite repeated follow up. The Attorney General’s Office has fielded multiple complaints about Makris since late May, whereas a few other Concord restaurants received one complaint each, public records show.
“When it comes to enforcing the governor’s executive orders, we find that people generally fall into three categories: We have people who don’t understand the guidelines, we have people who don’t like them and we have people who refuse to follow them,” Edwards said.
Education about the guidelines is always the first step – and sometimes, it’s the second, third and fourth steps, too, she said.
“Most businesses want to do what is right and they come into compliance quickly,” Edwards said. “If we have a concern that our efforts to educate are not working and we’re not getting through to the people we’ve been talking to, we’ll have the police do a follow-up within 48 hours.”
Local police officers will stop by a business to speak with the owner and observe firsthand any violations of COVID-19 guidelines. Sometimes, officers may contact the New Hampshire Liquor Commission for additional guidance, or a municipality’s health inspector may become involved if a violation is observed during a routine inspection.
Law enforcement has discretion in deciding how to enforce an emergency order, but their primary objective is to educate. In the event of repeated violations, police are advised to issue a business a written warning, which informs them that future non-compliance may lead to criminal charges, according to guidance issued by the attorney general’s office in March.
“If the business does not comply after a written notice from police, the attorney general’s office will issue a letter to the business, letting them know that further legal action may be necessary,” Edwards said. “We do expect to issue a few of these for the first time.”
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