The Union bar pictured Sept. 29, 2023, with people watching live entertainment in Athens, Ohio.

Bar overcrowding

Published October 5, 2023

Bar overcrowding

Athens fire chief escalates fines for bar overcrowdings

By Alison Patton | For The Post

With the start of the fall semester, many bars in Uptown Athens are experiencing overcrowding beyond their maximum occupancy levels and, in turn, are being fined for unsafe occupancy levels.

While there have been only a few recent incidents of bars going over their maximum occupancy levels, Athens Fire Chief Robert Rymer is trying to increase the penalties for business owners who continue to overcrowd their bars to stop the issue.

Rymer presents fire safety talks and he’ll use past examples of fires in bars, including the Rhode Island Station nightclub fire – in which 100 people died because they couldn’t get out of the building – to local Athens bar owners to explain the importance of complying with maximum capacity laws.

“We try to provide that education (to bars),” Rymer said. “Here's the seriousness of (overcrowding). This is what may happen if you have a fire in your establishment, and people cannot get out in a timely manner. (The Station nightclub fire) is what we're trying to prevent.”

Bar checks are completed by the fire department to ensure businesses are staying below their maximum capacity, Rymer said. He said the checks happen about six to 10 times a year and are usually conducted on big weekends, like Homecoming.

The fire department issued a lawful order to each bar in August that explained the rules and regulations of maximum capacity, Rymer said.

Currently, when a bar exceeds maximum capacity, the owner or manager of the business is issued a minor misdemeanor, which – including court fees – is about $200. .

“We're in the process of escalating (the fine) because (bars are) making thousands of dollars a night selling alcohol; well, $150 and a minor misdemeanor doesn't mean anything,” Rymer said. “We're in the process of trying to figure out how do we get their attention to say, ‘look, just keep your numbers down below what it is supposed to, and we're not going to have any issues.’”

Athens County Law Director Lisa Eliason said Rymer introduced a new set of ordinances with updated penalties to the Athens City Council.

Under the drafted ordinances, the first offense is a minor misdemeanor with a $150 fee; the second offense within two years is a fourth-degree misdemeanor with a $250 fine and up to 30 days in jail; the third offense within two years is a third-degree misdemeanor with $500 fine and up to 60 days in prison; the fourth offense within two years is a second-degree misdemeanor with a $750 fine and up to 90 days in jail.

“If the owner could face jail time for having overcrowding, then maybe other steps would be taken to not overcrowd the bars,” Eliason said.

Although not every bar contributes to the overcrowding problem, Rymer said he has seen the issue consistently occur throughout the years.

“We're more concerned with (the bars) that aren't following the rules and aren't doing it properly,” Rymer said.

Eliason said the new ordinances have to go through two more readings with the city council; if approved, it will take 30 days for them to go into effect. However, it will be about another month and a half before anything changes.

At the Athens City Council meeting Monday the ordinance was up for second reading. It was tabled after Anthony Grillo, attorney at Toy Law Office, representing Daniel DeLuca, owner of the Red Brick Tavern, asked the council to collaborate on it with bar owners.

“We will feel that the penalties proposed … might be excessive or not achieved the purpose I think that everybody's trying to achieve,” Grillo said.

The ordinance will return to second reading if it is decided it no longer needs to be tabled. Multiple other bar owners were at the meeting and left after the motion was approved to be tabled.

Chris Knisley, city council president, said she thinks tabling the ordinance would signal to Rymer that they are listening to him and tells the bar owners that they will be held accountable. The only council member opposing the motion was Sarah Grace, D-At Large.

“I just think sometimes things get tabled and never come back,” Grace said. “I believe that our firefighters, who have tried numerous times to address this issue have felt very disrespected in that process. I think there has been ample opportunity for the situation to be addressed.”

There are at least three bars that have been fined since Rymer sent out the lawful order, which includes North End Kitchen and Bar, located at 77 N. Court St., which has a maximum capacity of 215 people; Courtside Pizza, located at 85 N. Court St., which has a maximum of 200 people; and J Bar, located at 41 N. Court St., which has a maximum of 147 people. David Cornwell is the owner of all three bars.

The misdemeanors were issued on Sept. 9, due to a failure to comply with the lawful ordinance.

Cornwell declined to comment.

Athens City Chief of Police Nick Magruder said the Athens Police Department, or APD, helps the fire department alleviate overcrowding because when they walk in, a lot of people leave. However, APD’s focus isn’t just bar checks.

“(The police department is) doing bar checks for a lot of other reasons, not just for the overcrowding purposes, which kind of comes into play with it,” Magruder said. “We will go and make sure that bars are not having underage people, there's no intoxicated people in there or fights in there.”

The police try to do checks throughout the week, but due to staffing, it’s difficult, Magruder said. Because there is more staff on the weekend, bar checks happen a couple of times a night.

“It's surprising how many people will move right when they see a flashlight, and so you'll have people who are trying to get through a very narrow backyard or narrow space to get out of the backyard,” Magruder said. “We're just trying to make sure that people leave, but do it safely because people can get really hurt.”

While overcrowding inside a bar is an issue, APD also runs into problems outside the bars. Magruder said while people are waiting to get inside, they sometimes get into fights, urinate in public or carry open containers.

Rymer said he has been doing bar checks for the last thirty years, and he will continue to do them until overcrowding stops being an issue.

“I would love to not have to go to bar checks. I would love to not have to go do inspections,” Rymer said. “But those are things that we have to do in order to make sure that every establishment is following the codes for the safety.”

AUTHOR: Alison Patton

EDITOR: Arielle Lyons

COPY EDITOR: Ashley Pomplas

PHOTOGRAPHY: Chloe Eggleston