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Two bars and Railyard commons area ordered to close for violating coronavirus health measures
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Two bars and Railyard commons area ordered to close for violating coronavirus health measures

From the Milestones in Nebraska's coronavirus fight series
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Haymarket

An empty scene at the Railyard earlier this year.

For several weeks the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department has expressed concern over the number of young people who have tested positive for the coronavirus after spending time at downtown bars and other crowded settings without wearing masks.

On Saturday, the department cracked down on businesses it said were operating in an unsafe way, ordering the temporary closure of two downtown bars and the Railyard commons area for violations of the city’s directed health measure.

Longwell's and Iguanas Pub, along with the Railyard commons area, were ordered to close from 5 p.m. Saturday to 5 p.m. Sunday for violating the latest COVID-19 health measures, the Health Department said.

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A mask mandate went into effect Monday, which requires business owners to ensure their customers wear face coverings any time they cannot social distance. Bars must also limit parties to eight people or less.

The bars were closed after attempts to educate and work with the establishments failed, interim Health Director Pat Lopez said in a statement. All bars had access to the health measures though hand-delivered information, local media and the city's website.

Lincoln municipal code allows the health director to order the closure of any business for the purpose of controlling communicable diseases, according to a city news release.

The Health Department received a number of reports alleging that certain bars were in violation, so the department conducted investigations Friday night and early Saturday morning.

There were significant violations at the two bars and the Railyard, according to the release.

The closure comes two weeks after Dine Out Lincoln, a program that permits restaurants and bars to expand onto sidewalks and streets amid social distancing restrictions, began in the Railyard.

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The Railyard, which includes Longwell's, was one of the areas that added additional outdoor seating and activities, including movie nights and pickleball.

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Longwell's owner Eric F. Marsh expressed frustration Saturday with the Health Department's decision.

“Longwell’s reached out to the Lancaster Health Department repeatedly over the past week to ask for guidance as to how to best handle the 'peak crowd' each weekend,” Marsh said. “Not sure what got lost in translation, but the result was an undercover inspection at the exact time of our request for assistance. I would have hoped that the Lancaster Health Department would have used their 12:30 a.m. visit to provide guidance and best practices so we can all work together to get through this troubling time."

The Railyard as a whole is continuing to navigate how to enforce the health measures in an outdoor space, a spokesperson said.

"We plan to work with the Health Department to follow the directed health guidelines to keep the community safe," said Katy Martin of Hurrdat, the marketing company that manages the Railyard.

A statement from Iguana's Pub also expressed disappointment in the order to close, pointing out that the bar took an extra week more than was required before reopening to observe what was working, or not working, at other businesses.

“In the time between today and when we reopened our doors (June 8th), our staff members have been wearing masks throughout the entire duration of their shift,” the statement said. “In the past two weeks as we noticed the situation wasn’t as under control as it should have been, we put signage on the bar top and each table top with messages encouraging patrons to stay seated with their group unless ordering a round at the bar. In addition to these measures, we also have limited our capacity to the amount of physical seats we have inside our establishment. … We will revisit our measures and how we can adhere to the guidelines further so that we can minimize community spread and avoid a repeat closure.”

The city's COVID-19 Risk Dial moved from low-orange to mid-orange Friday, indicating the risk of virus transmission remains high. Several downtown bars continue to be identified as possible places of exposure, as much of the recent increase in cases is among young adults.

“The mask mandate and the other restrictions were issued to slow the spread of the virus and to help prevent further restrictions like the closing of bars,” Lopez said. “We need these businesses to work with us to prevent the further spread of the virus and the need to issue more limitations on our business community.”

Since the beginning of July, 77% of new cases have been under age 40. And while individuals age 20-to-29 make up only about 18.5% of Lincoln's population, 53% of these new cases reported since July have been in that age group, the Health Department said. 

On Saturday, the city reported 40 new coronavirus cases, bringing the community total to 2,758. The number of deaths in Lancaster County remains at 14.

For the week ending Saturday, the city reported 340 cases, which is the highest number in a single week since the beginning of the pandemic. And the positivity rate for the week was 9.1%, which is the highest number since early May, when 13.9% of tests came back positive.

Statewide, there were 24,395 cases and 316 deaths linked to the virus as of Saturday evening.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7241 or ssaric@journalstar.com.

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News intern

Summer news intern Sofia Saric is a Los Angeles native studying journalism at Boston University and has previously written stories for the Boston Globe, the Brookline TAB, the Daily Free Press and Spindle.

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