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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Businesses could be charged 400% more for violating Denver's public health code under a new proposal from the head of the city's health department that's drawing swift opposition from some industry leaders.

Driving the news: A City Council committee last week unanimously advanced a bill backed by public health director Bob McDonald that would raise the maximum fine for public health violations from $999 to $5,000.

  • McDonald told council members this was in motion pre-pandemic but "put on pause" when the virus struck.
  • Health officials can issue citations for anything from failing to abide by COVID-19 and food safety protocols to violating noise, air pollution and pet leash laws.

Why it matters: For years, fines for violating public health orders have remained so low that many companies merely consider them a "cost of doing business" rather than penalties prompting compliance — and the pandemic only further exacerbated the trend.

  • McDonald also hopes better compliance will reduce court challenges and associated administrative costs. City data shows about a third of last year's 949 citations ended up in court.

What they're saying: "I think we're going to see a higher level of compliance without having to issue 333 tickets at difficult times like this," McDonald told the council committee.

  • The move would also bring the city in line with about a dozen others of similar size across the country that all have higher caps than Denver for various violations.

Yes, but: It comes at a turbulent time for businesses, particularly restaurants, which continue to be hard-hit due to labor shortages, increased operating costs and more.

  • "A single $5,000 fine, for a mistake, could easily close a restaurant," Colorado Restaurant Association CEO Sonia Riggs tells Axios. "Many restaurants have brand new staff, and accidents are sure to happen."
  • She suggested the city's health department take a "partnership approach" instead and work with the industry to get new staff trained to foster compliance.

By the numbers: In other cities studied by health department officials — including Austin, Charlotte, Chicago, D.C., Nashville, Portland and Seattle — the average maximum fine was roughly $5,500.

  • Fines ranged as high as $50,000 for water pollution violations in D.C. and $24,000 in New York for noise citations. In both categories, Denver's penalty sits at $999.

What's next: Denver City Council is scheduled to take a final vote on the legislation Aug. 2.

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Go deeper

Aug 3, 2021 - Health

New York City to require vaccination proof for indoor activities

New York City will require proof of vaccination to participate in indoor activities, including visiting gyms and restaurants, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Tuesday.

Why it matters: The mandate is the first of its kind for a major U.S. city, according to de Blasio. France and Italy announced similar requirements last month.

Colorado's haphazard approach to masks

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

The COVID-19 pandemic recently took a serious turn amid the Delta variant's spread, but the Denver area didn't seem to notice.

In grocery stores, bars and shops across the area this weekend, the renewed public health precautions advising the vaccinated to wear masks indoors were met with a mix of acceptance, frustration and indignation, as the Axios Local team reported.

Aug 3, 2021 - Health

McDonald's mandates masks for customers, staff in high COVID spread areas

Photo: Brandon Bell/Getty Images

McDonald's will require all customers and staff to start wearing masks again while inside the restaurant in counties with high or substantial COVID-19 transmission, regardless of vaccination status, the company confirmed Tuesday.

Driving the news: The mandate comes after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued updated guidance recommending vaccinated people wear masks in indoor, public settings if they are in parts of the country with substantial to high transmission.