The city’s Appeals Board on Wednesday upheld three citations issued to a Palm Springs bar owner for violating emergency COVID-19 orders, but reduced the fines levied with those citations by more than half.
In a unanimous vote that followed an hour of testimony, staff reports and deliberations, Larry Bitonti, owner of Hair of the Dog English Pub at 555 S. Palm Canyon Dr., was ordered to pay $16,000 for violations discovered by code enforcement officers starting in November 2020. A series of escalating fines against Bitonti originally totaled $40,000.
“Loads and loads of businesses were really struggling with these orders and the vast majority found a way to abide by them,” said Board Chair Michael Paonessa before a vote on the fines. “It appears to me that this business was looking for ways to get around them.”
At the center of the debate Wednesday evening were rules that applied to establishments serving alcohol at the time of the citations. Under state orders in effect during the fall of 2020 and the winter of 2021, only those offering full-service, sit-down meals were allowed to serve alcohol. Even with full meal service, they were only allowed to seat customers outside.
Code enforcement officers who visited Hair of the Dog three times between November 2020 and January 2021 testified Wednesday that not only were bar patrons being served inside, but that food offered on a paper menu officers were shown, which appeared to be from a temporary taco stand not doing business at the bar, fell short of being full food service. Officers also reported seeing people inside the bar drinking, playing pool, and watching sports quickly disperse when they knocked on the bar’s locked door.
Charles Koller, an attorney representing Bitonti, acknowledged that patrons were inside the bar during one visit by the officers. He said that incident was simply a mistake made by an employee acting on behalf of Bitonti, who was concerned about the comfort of his customers. On the other occasions, Koller said, what officers thought were people playing pool were customers who happened to be touching pool equipment while they waited near pool tables to pay their bills. People seen dispersing by the officers, he claimed, were past and present employees who showed up to clean the bar and went on a break at the same moment officers arrived.
Code enforcement officers and city staff disputed those claims, pointing to photographs showing what they said was clear evidence of the violations.
“We didn't observe any individuals engaged in any sort of cleaning or anything,” said Mitch Nabhan, one of the code enforcement officers who visited Hair of the Dog. “It appeared that the individuals were inside, watching a football game, and having a few drinks.”
Added a city staff member who briefed the Board: “I don’t think it’s believable that they just happened to be taking their break all at the same time and happened to end their break right when [officers] knocked on the window and then scattered.”
Board members were equally suspect of Koller’s claims, asking few questions before upholding the citations, while reducing the fines.
“I think the photos speak volumes,” said Paonessa. “I don't find it credible that somebody is just throwing a ball on a pool table when they have a pool cue standing next to them. And we can see the pool cue next to those gentlemen at the pool table. We can see photos of people with cocktails and no food.”