THE INVESTIGATORS: Nightclub temporary shut down for overcrowding concerns, owner disputes claims

Crackdowns coming on overcrowding in EBR

EAST BATON ROUGE PARISH, La. (WAFB) - A weekend of large gatherings in East Baton Rouge Parish left local leaders fuming and law enforcement agencies on high alert.

The Palace 2300 nightclub won’t be hosting parties anytime soon after the State Fire Marshal’s Office stepped in, temporarily pulling the plug on the business citing overcrowding concerns.

WAFB’s Scottie Hunter asked the State Fire Marshal Butch Browning what some of the major problems were when his agents got inside the club.

”There was only one accessible exit which was the main door coming in so people were packed all the way to the back,” said Browning.

An image sent to the 9News Investigators captures a huge party that popped off over the weekend. The lights were blazing and Browning says the club was packed with more than 700 people inside. While they did not initially go for a COVID-19 complaint, Browning says what they found was out of order and that the business was operating beyond the capacity they would be allowed to have even under normal circumstances.

”Oh absolutely. In the COVID environment, they should have had less than 30 people,” said Browning.

Torrey Lewis, the nightclub’s owner disputes the count saying there was nowhere near that amount of people inside and that there were also several usable exits at the time of the party.

The Fire Marshal’s Office wants to put other businesses on notice that agents are out there and if they get complaints, they’re checking it out.

”Right now we’re doing about anywhere from 500 to 1,000 visits a week across the state,” said Browning.

Since the agency started taking coronavirus complaints last May, they’ve looked into 527 overcrowding complaints and allegations that managers were not controlling capacity in East Baton Rouge. Browning calls it troubling.

”It’s very concerning and it’s putting innocent peoples’ lives in harm’s way because the people who think it’s okay to be risky and maybe contract COVID-19, they’re also the people who will spread that COVID-19 to innocent people and we know that result of the spread of this disease is death,” Browning said.

There have been eights complaints in the capital region this week alone and they aren’t just coming from bars or nightclubs. The agency has also gotten complaints about restaurants, gas stations and churches. Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome says spots who think they can get away with breaking the rules can think again.

”We are and we have established enforcement and that enforcement will continue to take place,” she said.

As the pandemic drags on, Browning says for the most part, businesses are doing the right thing but it all comes down to business owners. He says they can fly right or face the consequences.

”People who want to comply and want to run a safe business, we’re absolutely going to work hand in hand like we do every day, but if you’re going to blatantly disregard and put peoples’ lives in danger, that’s why our office exists is to protect peoples’ safety,” Browning said.

Mayor-President Sharon Weston-Broome admonished the gatherings in a social media post saying she was, “disappointed any business would put the lives of their patrons, staff & community in such danger.”

The Mayor suggests the amount of people seen together inside of venues through videos and images shared on social media websites violate restrictions in place across the parish to slow the spread of coronavirus.

“The seriousness surrounding the coronavirus is real, especially now that there is a new and more contagious variant in Louisiana,” Mayor Broome wrote. “If you have attended a mass event, the responsible thing to do at this point is to isolate yourself and seek a COVID-19 test in five to seven days.”

Governor John Bel Edwards reported additional cases of those new coronavirus variants found in the Lake Charles and New Orleans areas.

Louisiana Department of Health Interim Assistant Secretary Dr. Joseph Kanter said the cases already identified in the state are, “the tip of the iceberg” and more cases may have spread across the state.

State officials say even without covid protocols in place, some of the images they’ve seen show venues packed beyond occupancy limits. Those officials say the overcrowding poses other significant risks besides covid exposure, like creating a fire hazard.

The Mayor says law enforcement agencies will continue to be notified of large gatherings going forward. In the past, the mayor has said continued bad behavior could lead to a rollback towards more restrictive safety protocols.

Folks who observe violations of covid restrictions or overcrowding at any venue in the city-parish can make an anonymous report by calling 225-389-8875 or online at brla.gov/covidreport.

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