Public Health – Seattle & King County has suspended the license of Flowers Restaurant, a popular University District hangout, after management defied the state’s social distancing guidelines, seating restrictions and facial coverings order, according to public inspection records. The records also noted how the restaurant’s owner said at one point that he doesn’t care about the state’s safety guidelines.

In a three-page letter dated May 3, health inspectors noted that the bar/restaurant Flowers, located on the Ave, has a history of noncompliance with COVID-19 safety concerns that date back to Aug. 28, 2020, and that the bar continued to rack up complaints as recently as April 30.

Last month, inspectors reported that the bar restaurant was “operating at full capacity” and was crowded at a time when King County food and drink establishments were supposed to keep indoor seating to 50% capacity. The inspector also reported that the restaurant’s staff was “observed serving drinks without wearing face coverings.”

A “rules to enter” sign is taped to the window inside Flowers Restaurant in Seattle’s University District on Tuesday. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)
A “rules to enter” sign is taped to the window inside Flowers Restaurant in Seattle’s University District on Tuesday. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)

The inspector’s report noted that Fadi Hamade, one of the owners, said “multiple times” that he does “not care about people, not care government orders and COVID-19 safety regulations,” according to the report called a “Notice of Permit Suspension.”

Reached by phone, Hamade called those allegations “a complete fabrication” by an inspector, saying he would not make such reckless decisions to jeopardize a bar restaurant he has built up for the past 30 years. “My employees double-masked. You think I want to get sick?” he said.

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The health department supervisor who signed off on shutting down Hamade’s bar declined to comment. But an hour later, the health department released a photo to The Seattle Times that showed the Flowers bar packed, with the dining tables squeezed close together. In that photo, many maskless patrons appeared to be seated shoulder-to-shoulder or back-to-back with other parties.

In a prepared statement, the health department wrote that “Public Health teams have investigated multiple complaints related to compliance with COVID restrictions at Flowers. In most cases, the establishment acted on the recommendations from Public Health, and made improvements. But as is clear from the summary laid out in the closure letter sent to Flowers, we continued receiving credible complaints. After a recent visit, our team determined that the conditions in the establishment presented an imminent risk to the community’s health, and ordered the temporary suspension of the business’s food permit.”

When asked why Flowers was allowed to continue operating despite a long list of COVID-19-related complaints that date back to last summer, the health department released a statement saying that it takes “an education-first approach to enforcing compliance with Washington’s COVID-19 rules for food bars and restaurants.”

“The vast majority of food service businesses in King County are taking the required steps to keep their customers and employees as safe as possible, and when there are issues, most make a good faith effort to come into compliance,” Public Health said in a statement.

Last summer, the health department took swift action to shut down Duke’s Seafood on Alki Beach after seven employees at the popular West Seattle hangout tested positive for the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 within a two-week span. The popular chain was allowed to reopen weeks later.

In this case, health officials said they did not find an outbreak nor evidence of any COVID-19 cases that could be traced back specifically to Flowers.

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According to the health department documents, an inspector visited Flowers last August to advise the owners that a “table of 6 people can only dine together if they are from the same household.” Health officials also discussed with management issues related to social distancing and limited seating guidelines that needed to be followed. In one case, the inspector noted that a couple tried to seat themselves at an already occupied table.

Records show an inspector came back three months later to address other social distancing concerns and also reported that employees were not screened for COVID-19 symptoms as is required by the state before workers start their shifts.

On Feb. 5, health officials returned to the bar to talk to management about how tables needed to be 6 feet apart, and reminded management that the bar can only seat 20 customers under what was then 25% seating capacity.

Even after that visit, the health department received at least three more complaints. On April 30, a health inspector reportedly found that the bar was operating at full capacity, and on May 1, an inspector wrote in a report that tables were less than 4 feet apart and they noticed staff was not wearing masks while serving customers.

In the letter sent to Flowers dated May 3, health officials said Flowers was “operating in a manner that creates an imminent health hazard” and suspended its license until “corrective actions” are taken. To get reinstated, the bar owners must provide a detailed “COVID Prevention and Safety Plan” as to how the bar plans to keep its workers and customers safe during COVID-19, according to health department guidelines.

Hamade said Tuesday that he just submitted his safety plan and is waiting for the health department’s hearing and review panel to approve his compliance proposal.

“This is all very unfair,” he said.