By: Marisa Herman Associate Editor
On any given weekend night the dinner hour turns into the late night hour and downtown Delray restaurants begin serving less food and more drinks.
The bar scene is in full force as patrons pack in and the music goes up and the lights turn down. For years, many Atlantic Avenue restaurants have been converting over from dining establishments into club-like settings. The tables and chairs are pushed to the side and a make-shift dance floor appears. The partying goes on until closing time at 2 a.m.
But city officials say that clubby atmosphere is violating several of the city’s rules. First off, there is no permit for restaurants to apply for that allows them to convert or turn into a club. The city only approves restaurants or stand-alone-bars, not a combination.
And because the establishments are moving tables and chairs out of the way, city officials say they cram more people inside, which often violates the building’s allowed capacity.
The amount of people inside is creating safety hazards for guests, city officials said.
Interim city manager Neal de Jesus said the SantaCon pub crawl sparked concerns. Since then, he said the fire department has been sending letters and visiting restaurants reminding them of the rules.
“It started with SantaCon and it morphed from here,” de Jesus told commissioners. “We can’t turn a blind eye to the overcrowding. They aren’t licensed to operate the way they are operating. Our main concern is the safety and welfare of patrons.”
The topic of creating a policy that would allow the conversion from restaurant to bar or club failed to gain traction from commissioners despite requests from several restaurateurs.
“We are slowly turning into a Clematis or Las Olas and we don’t want to have that on Atlantic Avenue,” Commissioner Adam Frankel said.
Commissioners challenged the restaurant owners to comply with the rules and sided with de Jesus to enforce those rules.
Enforcement of the occupancy rules began last month. Fire inspectors have been sent to check in on restaurants to check for compliance.
And the restaurants are not always happy when the fire inspector shows up.
In an email from de Jesus to commissioners, he states he is on scene at the OG Bar. It is 1:13 a.m. on a Sunday morning. He indicates the bar is over capacity by a couple of hundred people and states the owner was “intoxicated” and became “confrontational and threatening.”
The fire department had to call in the police department to help evacuate the bar. A quick count revealed 267 patrons leaving the building, not including employees, the email said. The occupancy load: 59.
The taxpayers have been footing the bill for the fire inspectors’ time. The city’s legal team is currently looking to see if repeat offenders can be billed for the overtime expense.
“The taxpayers are paying for bouncers,” Mayor Shelly Petrolia said. “It’s unfair for our staff and employees from the fire department to go out there and be bouncers for these restaurants. This is out of control.”
The inspections will continue and repeat offenders could lose their city operating licenses, de Jesus told commissioners.
“The tipping point is here,” Commissioner Bill Bathurst said. “It has just hit us hard.”