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Denver increases maximum fine for public health violations to $5K

Denver City Council adopted an ordinance on Monday night amending the maximum fine its city health department can levy against a business from $999 to $5,000.

The Denver Department of Public Health and Environment (DDPHE) argued that the increase is necessary because the current fine level is too low and is seen as “the cost of doing business.” The measure will also allow the agency to be more flexible in its assessments across industry types, DDPHE said.

DDPHE Executive Director Bob McDonald told City Council that the initiative began before the pandemic began.

“What we’re seeing more and more is that our administrative fine authority has been unchanged for decades. And what we’re seeing is that some businesses in regulated industries are disobeying these orders,” McDonald said.

He stressed that businesses in Denver are doing well with public health order compliance overall, but some businesses are choosing to disobey public health orders because the current $999 cap is not enough incentive to comply.

McDonald said a few examples of “serious public health threats” that would fall under the purview of the new fine include restaurants practices that promote foodborne illnesses and public pools that do not use proper sanitation.

DDPHE issued just 949 public health citations during 2020 for violations ranging from noise to air quality, and COVID-19 distancing requirements. This total is far below the total of 2,622 citations the agency issued in 2019.

Once fines are levied, only 3% of cases are appealed, DDPHE data shows. Only 0.4% of cases are eventually overturned.

“Increasing the maximum fine amount to $5,000 will allow for more flexible fine schedules across different industry types, encourage greater compliance and avoid court and associated expenses for the department and the city,” the ordinance request argues.

The new ordinance will maintain the previous fine structure. First offenses are $150; second offenses are $500; and third violations will now be capped at $5,000.

To set the maximum, Denver looked at fees and penalties assessed by other cities such as Charlotte, North Carolina, Austin, Texas, and New York City.

According to the ordinance request, a city study found that a cross-jurisdictional average of $5,500 per public health violation. Some fees ranged from over $24,000 to a couple hundred dollars.

Some business owners are worried the increased fines will hurt their recovery from a pandemic-laden 2020.

“Restaurants can barely afford the increased food costs, labor costs, and operating costs that have resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic,” Colorado Restaurant Association CEO Sonia Riggs told The Center Square in an email.

“A single $5,000 fine, for a mistake, could easily close a restaurant,” she added. “This industry has always strived to ensure public health and safety for guests and will continue to do so. Increasing the fines when many restaurants are struggling to keep their doors open is incredibly bad timing, especially when you consider the labor shortage facing the industry.”

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