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The C.I., Oct. 27, 2023, in Athens, Ohio.

State Fire Marshals assist AFD in bar checks

The Ohio State Fire Marshals have come to Athens during the Halloween Block Party for several years to offer additional assistance to the Athens Fire Department during the busy night. 

The Ohio South East District Chief Richard Vance and five other State Fire Marshals started their checks at 7 p.m. Saturday.

Vance said that the block party is the one time of the year the state comes in to help the Athens Fire Department. He said the Athens fire chief sends a request to the fire marshals to do bar checks for them because the night can get overwhelming. 

“This was a great year for us,“ Vance said. "The kids are very respectful. The bars, you know, we see a lot of the same faces every year, and they know what our expectations are. This year was no different. (Bars and students) were cooperative in every way, and we really didn't have a lot of issues."

He said the biggest issues are always overcrowding the sidewalks and ensuring bars keep a side door open to let people easily leave the bar. 

However, on their first round of checks, the marshals did evacuate Stephen’s Restaurant and Bar, located at 66 N. Court St., Vance said. The marshals advised everyone to evacuate because the bouncers at the door did not have an accurate count of the people coming in and out. However, the bar was not overcrowded. 

“We required that they shut off all the music and evacuate the bar and then count the people as they come in, so we'd have an accurate count moving forward the rest of the night,” Vance said. 

Two fire marshals go into a bar for a check and count the number of people there. They also check exits to make sure if an accident happens within the bar, people can safely exit the building. 

On the second round of checks, beginning around 11 p.m., Stephen’s was over its maximum capacity – 207 occupants upstairs and 113 occupants downstairs – by about 35 people. 

Instead of evacuating the bar, no one was allowed to enter until a certain number of people left. Once the total number of occupants was lowered, the bouncer could let one person in for every person who left. 

However, Stephen’s Owner, Steve Messina, was not charged with anything. 

Stephen’s did not receive a citation, but there have been bars within the past year that have been fined for overcrowding. The most recent bar was North End Kitchen and Bar, 77 N. Court St., about two months ago, in which the owner, David Cornwell, was charged with a minor misdemeanor.

Cornwell has received three other minor misdemeanors for overcrowding. He was charged on Aug. 25 for the three bars he owns, North End, Courtside Pizza, 85 N. Court St., and J Bar, 41 N. Court St. 

The Athens Fire Department Chief Robert Rymer introduced ordinances to the City Council in October that would increase the fines and add potential jail time for bar owners who are charged with overcrowding, according to a previous Post report

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, according to a previous Post report. 

City Council members have tabled the ordinance for more thought, but Councilmember Alan Swank, D-4th Ward, wants to continue the discussion before making a final decision. 

“Yes, safety is an issue, but how widespread?” Swank said. "How widespread were these abuses? What's the best way to handle those who abused the situation? What do the bar owners have to say about this? And what's the history of bars and overcrowding in Athens?” 

He suggested a task force made up of members from the police department, fire department, city council, city administration and bar owners to rework the ordinance. Swank said the ordinance was a good idea, but it needs to be fine-tuned. 

"Jail time is the most concerning aspect of the ordinance," Swank said. "The bar owners have also agreed there were better routes than jail time."

“First and foremost, (the bar owners) made it very clear that they want safe conditions too,“ Swank said. "Secondly, they don't want to go to jail. And three, they would like to have a discussion and have input on what the best way forward is."

Councilmember Ben Ziff, D-At Large, said he voted to table it because of the jail time. 

“I don't believe in putting people in prison unless they have done something truly egregious,” Ziff said. “When it comes to this kind of thing, I don't view this as that.”

While nothing has been officially discussed, Ziff thinks the financial penalty for repeat offenders is a good idea. 

“Alright, so the first time (offense is) $350,“ Ziff said. "You do it again within two years $500. You do it a third time within two years 750 bucks. That's a lot of money even if a bar pulls in $4,000 in one night, $750 is a lot."

The current council session ends in December, and anything left on the table dies and will need to be reintroduced when the council goes back into session in January, Ziff said.


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