Masking is especially an issue; L&I, state Liquor Control Board slap fines on businesses

WHATCOM — Conflicts between state agencies and local businesses over COVID-19 restrictions are on the rise, and several Lynden businesses have been affected.

Katz! Coffee and Used Books in downtown Lynden, as well as Z Recyclers on Guide Meridian Road and Fairway Café in Lynden have all been slapped with fines from the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries for COVID-19-related violations. Other businesses around town have been given notice by the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board.

Both Katz and Z Recyclers face fines of just under $20,000 from L&I, and while Fairway could not be contacted for this story, L&I reports it gave a fine of $91,473 in early January for eight different COVID-19-related violations of the cafe, and another open inspection is still going.

Sherri Stap, Katz! co-owner, said two L&I inspectors came into the store and did not identify themselves. Eventually, they addressed her and brought up the lack of employee masking and the fact that customers were not required to mask. The inspector also mentioned the lack of barriers between employees and customers. Sherri said there is a sign on the door that says masks are required if a customer does not have a medical condition, and masks and gloves are on hand and available for employees without medical conditions. She also said that bigger stores in Bellingham don’t require masks if customers have medical conditions.

“It’s okay for the big guys,” Stap said. “It should be okay for us. I don’t even give a second thought when people walk in without a mask. It’s their health. I’m not going to say you can’t come in here without a mask on because if they’ve got asthma — some of them do, some of them don’t — and I’m not going to ask them. I just let them do their thing and obviously they feel comfortable coming in.”

Stap said the barrier between employees and customers isn’t a requirement, and the lack of spacing between employees also isn’t an issue because Katz only ever has one employee working at a time.

“We only ever have one employee at a time. Since forever,” she said.

The forms provided to the business by L&I alluded to an employee complaint, and Stap said they can provide sworn affidavits from the business’s two employees stating that they did not complain.

Dan Thompson, owner of Z Recyclers, said he does not require masks in his business because he does not believe in the pandemic, wearing masks or social distancing.

“I think we’ve been lied to,” Thompson said. “We all know what the rate of death is when you do contract it. It’s next to nothing. And I’m huge on common sense. Common sense says this is a bunch of crap. In my establishment here, we have not worn masks. I didn’t put up signs to tell people they had to wear a mask. We did put some lines on the floor. We did try some social distancing, ‘stay off the counter’ kind of thing.”

Thompson said he is retaining a lawyer out of Seattle to fight his fines, which total to just under $20,000. He said he wants to hire a specialist on contagious viruses to help in the case.

L&I spokesperson Tim Church confirmed these violations and said not every situation is exactly the same. Generally, Church said, complaints come into the state’s Emergency Operations Center and are then assigned out to a state agency depending on the type of business each one is related to.

In cases assigned to L&I, the business is contacted and notified of the complaint and informed of the potential consequences, and is often sent a cease-and-desist letter.

Church said that after the initial contact, businesses can fix their issues and avoid fines. Once a formal inspection is opened, however, it’s too late.

“People know what they’re supposed to do. This is not brand-new anymore, so businesses have a lot of clarity on what the requirements are,” Church said. “You can’t, with a straight face, pretend you really just have no idea that masks are required in a workplace, for example.” 

Other businesses in the county have been cited by the state Liquor and Cannabis Board, including Rustlers Front Street Grill and The Mill, both located in downtown Lynden.

Darrel Timmer owns The Mill, and he said the Liquor Control Board gave him a written notice for not wearing masks. He said the agency’s system, much like L&I’s, is complaint-based.

“They contacted me several times,” Timmer said. “The biggest problem I have with the whole thing is, if people call in, it’s anonymous. But how do we know? They’re saying we saw people walk in the door without a mask on.”

Timmer said he doesn’t want to police people walking into the restaurant without a mask on.

“If I’ve got to start telling people that they’ve got to wear masks coming in the door, I might as well just close,” he said.

Timmer said he received a notice on Friday, March 19, and has not yet been fined. But he said that four citations in two years leads to a business’s liquor license being pulled.

“It’s a big deal when you’re getting turned in for stuff where you don’t really understand when it happened or why it happened,” Timmer said.

Employees are required to wear masks at The Mill, Timmer said.

  Kevin Seutz, owner of Rustlers Front Street Grill, said his business was fined for not requiring masks.

  “I didn’t dispute it because no, at any given time, we’re not doing exactly what they want anyway,” Seutz said. “You can really offend people by trying to enforce that. Not everybody agrees with it. Some think that it’s kind of silly that you have to wear it and then walk five feet to your table and take it off. The whole thing is a mess.”

  He dealt with the liquor agency via teleconference and was able to get the fine reduced.