A hookah lounge in Bethesda received a warning last weekend from a Montgomery County health inspector because a couple was smoking on the outdoor patio, a violation of COVID-19 restrictions.
A county inspector visited Avenue Hookah Lounge at 4924 Del Ray Ave. in Bethesda and saw a couple smoking on an outside patio, according to an April 17 report by the county’s Department of Health and Human Services.
The report states that an employee told the inspector that he didn’t give the couple a lighted hookah, but that they bought it at the retail store.
“Note that no smoking is allowed on the patio or any seating area outside the facility. It is the responsibility of the management to tell the customers not to smoke on retail property patio or walkway area,” the report states.
The county’s health order states that cigar bars, hookah bars and vape shops can open only to sell retail goods, but smoking on site is “strictly prohibited.”
Ahmed Kamel, the owner of Avenue Hookah Lounge, wrote in an email to Bethesda Beat on Tuesday that the county did not issue a ticket “because there was no violation occurring.”
Kamel added that the county has not been barring cigar shops from allowing smoking inside, unlike hookah lounges.
“The county is aware and isn’t pursuing them because they are specially targeting hookah lounges and even though they say cigar shops are the same and subject to the same rules, they aren’t enforcing any of the rules on them,” he wrote.
The county has been inspecting restaurants, bars and other businesses throughout the pandemic for compliance with COVID-19 restrictions. The inspections can result in a temporary closure, monetary fine or warning depending on the circumstances.
Two other restaurants were either fined or warned about COVID-19 violations on April 10.
El Caracol Café at 609 Sligo Ave. in Silver Spring was fined $500 after an inspector saw customers walking around with drinks and not wearing masks. Additionally, the inspector saw six to eight people standing by the bar not social distancing, and it appeared that the restaurant was at more than 50% of the allowed capacity.
Luis Ramirez, a manager at El Caracol, told Bethesda Beat on Tuesday that his staff tries to follow all of the rules, but the mask rule can be difficult to enforce for customers.
“We have signs. We have everything. It’s very hard to enforce,” he said. “When they get up to go to the bathroom, sometimes they forget to put their mask on.”
Ramirez said he understands the importance of the county’s COVID-19 rules, but the health department’s approach to compliance can be harsh.
“I feel like they are very hard on us when we’re trying to work. It’s a difficult situation we’re facing. And I understand the rules, and the law, and this and that. But I feel like we don’t have much of a say,” he said.
El Sitio Restaurant at 8210 Piney Branch Road in Silver Spring also received a warning on April 10 after a health inspector saw that people were sitting and eating closer than six feet apart at tables. The inspector told the restaurant’s manager to move the tables and chairs so that they were six feet apart.
Representatives from El Sitio could not immediately be reached for comment on Tuesday.
Dan Schere can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org