News for the Hospitality Executive
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Feb. 17, 2004 - With a rock band wailing in the back of the bar, 65 people danced and drank Saturday night in Quenchers Saloon, despite a sign behind the cash register stating the tavern's limit was 50.
Just two weeks earlier, the North Side bar had been closed by the Chicago Fire Department after a surprise inspection found 183 people inside, more than three times what authorities deem safe.
Though a city inspection crackdown has brought many bars into compliance with safety laws in the year since 21 people died in a stampede at the E2 nightclub, violations remain easy to find in Chicago's club scene. Some venues continue to exceed their legal occupancy, gambling that they won't get caught.
Others have cut significantly the number of patrons they allow in--bouncers keep count with clickers and shut off admission after reaching capacity.
But some safety experts say the city has not gone far enough, and will continue pushing for reforms.
"When you talk about progress, the city has made some progress, but they're not making as much as they should," said Paul Wertheimer, a Chicago-based crowd-control consultant. "I still go into nightclubs and bars in Chicago and I see violations all over the place, and that's unacceptable."
William Cousins Jr., co-chair of the review panel appointed by the mayor after the E2 tragedy, said it is unclear whether nightclubs are safer today than a year ago.
"I think the jury is still out on that," said Cousins, a former Illinois appellate judge.
Cousins said that though the city has increased inspections, many inspectors are not sufficiently trained. "It's a big problem," he said. "A lot of times you have people who really don't know what they're doing."
Attorney Andrea Zopp, the other co-chair of the review panel, lauded the city for working in recent months to correct what she called "clear inefficiencies" in enforcement efforts.
But Zopp said budgetary constraints have made it difficult for Chicago to fully enact the panel's recommendations.
"Nightclubs are safer now, but is it perfect? No," she said. "In a perfect universe, you would want to see a dedicated unit focused on inspecting nightclubs. It's hard to fund that at this current time."
Many of the changes the city has made since last February came at the suggestion of the Cousins-Zopp panel, established to figure out what went wrong in the popular South Side nightclub in the early morning hours of Feb. 17.
The club's patrons and investigators have said the problems began shortly after 2 a.m., when a fight broke out on the dance floor. A security guard tried to break up the fracas with pepper spray, causing a panic in which 21 people died.
In the months that followed, investigators found that the bar was overcrowded and that emergency exits were improperly marked, forcing hundreds to flee toward the only exit they knew--the narrow staircase they had used to enter.
Those who died were crushed under a stack of people trying to escape.
The club's owner, Dwain Kyles, and three other men have been charged with involuntary manslaughter. All four have pleaded not guilty and are awaiting trial.
One of the biggest concerns after the tragedy was that E2 was allowed to operate despite a court order shutting it down.
In response, the city says it has improved communication among the Police, Fire and Building Departments. A database of court orders and violations allows enforcement officials to make spot checks, ensuring businesses are in compliance.
The city also requires bars and nightclubs to post diagrams showing the locations of exits and to prominently display their occupancy limits.
But perhaps the biggest change has been the frequency with which the city inspects businesses. Fire Department officials say they have doubled the number of inspectors conducting late-night weekend checks.
Since last February, the department inspected almost 2,200 bars and nightclubs on Friday and Saturday nights, when the clubs are the busiest. Some bar owners say they've been visited almost weekly since the E2 tragedy.
"We have really made an impact there. Our inspectors are seeing a lot more compliance when they go out," said Molly Sullivan, a Fire Department spokeswoman. "We have been clearly focusing on these issues in the last year."
Most of the bars the Fire Department inspects have no problems, and those that do are usually minor, Sullivan said. Still, her department has closed 17 bars for violations, mostly overcrowding. Almost all were allowed to reopen the next day.
Martyrs, 3855 N. Lincoln Ave., was closed Saturday night about an hour into a concert by the Spanish group Ojos de Brujo. Fire Department inspectors told the club's owner the building was overcrowded.
Two weeks earlier, on the weekend of Jan. 30, fire officials inspected 58 venues. Of those, 13 had violations and one was closed for the night--Quenchers.
The bar's owner, Earle Johnson, said he was celebrating his 61st birthday when fire officials paid a visit Jan. 31 to the bar at 2401 N. Western Ave. The violation, he admits, was obvious.
"I'm not debating the count or the fact that we were over capacity," Johnson said. "I feel bad that it happened during a birthday celebration. They came when we were as full as we've ever been."
Johnson said his occupancy limit is 50 people despite 1,600 square feet of space, in part because of two of his emergency exit doors previously opened inward instead of outward. He said he has fixed the doors and re-applied for a larger occupancy limit but has not heard back from the city.
Saturday night, he instructed the front-door bouncer to stop letting people in after the bouncer's hand-held counter hit 65 people, calling it a "judgment call."
Johnson said he allowed more people in than his legal limit because he thought his bar was safe and because he wanted to make money.
"We don't have a cover and you need a certain number of people to pay the bills," Johnson said.
At the time, the bar did not appear crowded, with some stools unoccupied and a couch near the door empty.
"It's difficult because right now, someone comes through the door and says, "What do you mean there's no room? There's plenty of room,'" Johnson said.
Other bar operators said they, too, had trouble staying under their legal occupancy limits Saturday night. At the Green Dolphin Street jazz club at 2200 N. Ashland Ave., manager Sam Sproviero said that at one point Saturday night, an estimated 275 to 300 people filled the club. The club's official occupancy limit is 204.
Sproviero said that many of the people had come over from the restaurant portion of the business, which was busy because of Valentine's Day. The manager said he did not think the club was too crowded and that he would have stopped people from going into the club had he thought it was dangerous.
Less than 2 miles away, at Biology nightclub, 901 W. Weed St., a manager's count of patrons inside was 238, even though a capacity placard behind the bar said only 203 were allowed.
But there is evidence the city's crackdown is having an impact. While inspectors continue to find violations, clubgoers say the bars they frequent are less crowded.
Often, they said, lines to get in are longer because more bars are stopping customers from going in once the clubs have reached capacity.
Matthew Grasse, 35, said some bars have eased off a bit on ultra-strict policies that were enacted immediately after the E2 tragedy, but changes are still visible.
"It definitely did not go back to business as usual," Grasse said as he hung out in Berlin, 954 W. Belmont Ave., Friday night. "I think the point was made."
At Le Passage on Rush Street, partygoers were still in line outside at 2:30 a.m. when two police officers conducted a routine check.
"They came in just as we were nearing capacity," said the club's manager, Arturo Gomez. "They wanted to make sure we were on the same page, and we were."
City officials say that is the goal.
"I think people are getting the message because when we start to receive calls for overcrowding at Chuck E. Cheese's, I think people are letting the owners know that they won't tolerate that," said Cortez Trotter, the city's chief of emergency management and communication.
By Jon Yates and Dan Mihalopoulos. Grace Aduroja, Ofelia Casillas, Rick Jervis, Ana Beatriz Cholo, and Red Eye reporters Kathryn Masterson and Jimmy Greenfield contributed.
-----To see more of the Chicago Tribune, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.chicago.tribune.com/
(c) 2004, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.