Jul 19, 2021 - News
A health code crackdown is brewing — and stirring controversy
Illustration of a health plus peeling back revealing a hundred dollar bill on the reverse side.
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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