St. Louis Bars Can't Be 'Mask Police,' St. Louis Bars Argue in Lawsuit

click to enlarge A video of Wheelhouse's dancefloor was followed by a 14-day shutdown order. Now, the bar is suing. - SCREENSHOT VIA TWITTER
A video of Wheelhouse's dancefloor was followed by a 14-day shutdown order. Now, the bar is suing.
Two St. Louis bars forced to temporarily shut down over violating the city's mask and social distancing rules are now suing the city and Mayor Lyda Krewson. In the lawsuit, Wheelhouse and Start Bar argue that they shouldn't have to be the "mask police" for their patrons.

The lawsuit lambasts the city for doing just that: Both bars were ordered closed for fourteen days after a video of Wheelhouse's dancefloor July 25 — appearing to show virtually no mask use or social distancing — was shared by one of the bar's Instagram accounts.

The video soon disappeared from the Instagram account, but one day later the clips were reshared to Twitter .

The scene of the bar's Saturday dance crowd video generated outrage online, including celebrated chef and restaurateur Gerard Craft, who called the scene "total bullshit" in a tweet, adding, "so many people struggling and doing the right thing while selfish people have been bringing us close to another shutdown."

Wheelhouse and Start Bar are owned by Stephen Savage. In June, Savage announced a temporary closure of the bars after an employee tested positive for COVID-19. The bars reopened July 7.

But the comeback was short lived.

On July 29, three days after the video of Wheelhouse made headlines, Krewson announced that the bar was among four downtown businesses — along with Start Bar, Big Daddy’s and Marquee Restaurant & Lounge —  that would be forced to close for two weeks.

The bars, Krewson tweeted, had "so obviously ignored our #COVID19 public health orders requiring masks and social distancing." She added, "Places that flout our rules endanger the public and can no longer stay open."

The lawsuit, which also names as a defendant Dr. Fredrick Echols, the director of the city Department of Health, does not directly address the scene filmed at Wheelhouse on July 25.

The suit claims the city failed to notify the bars of the violation or provide an opportunity to make adjustments before ordering them closed. The lawsuit also argues that the city's action against the bars was "fundamentally motivated by criticism generated online due to the circulation of a video showing a number of individuals on a dance floor."

The bar staff, the lawsuit claims, "consistently wore face coverings as required" and even received praise after a July 18 visit by a health inspector, who, according to the lawsuit, provided feedback: "Everything looks great, staff is wearing masks, customers are wearing them to enter and to their tables, you all are in compliance!"

One week later, the Instagram account @wheelhouse_nightlife shared the 29-second clip of the crowd of maskless partiers hitting the dance floor.

Were the dancers acting responsibly? Well, no. But was the owner of the dance floor responsible? That's where the lawsuit claims the city is in the wrong.

For one thing, the bars claim the city's mask order was directed "at individuals, not businesses." It also claims Krewson contradicted her own earlier statements indicating, "We don't have mask police."

The lawsuit does not claim one way or the other whether the bar patrons captured on film were violating the city's mask ordinance; instead, it argues that the city's order doesn't give Krewson and Echols the power to so abruptly punish the bars for the public's behavior there.

Meanwhile, in Friday's daily COVID-19 update, Krewson noted that rising coronavirus numbers are causing leaders to consider further reducing the current 75 percent capacity on indoor venues.

"We have begun an enforcement program," Krewson said, "with regard to some of our businesses that were not really taking the mask and social distance as seriously as we thought they should."

While the mayor did not name the targets of the enforcement, she acknowledged, "Frankly, the businesses don't want to be the mask police and I don't blame them."

"But," she continued, "if we're going to be open, we all have to be in this together. You have to be doing your part, businesses have to be doing their part."

Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at @D_Towski. E-mail the author at [email protected]
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