MEMPHIS, Tenn. — WREG uncovered a long list from the city of businesses breaking rules and some who refused to comply with Mayor Jim Strickland’s orders for businesses to close during the coronavirus crisis.
Car washes were among the businesses most frequently cited for breaking the rules.
Between March 31 and April 26, the city says it checked 76 businesses for reportedly violating the mayor’s shelter in place order.
A few were furniture stores, beauty supply shops, a gym and a restaurant. But almost 50 percent were car washes.
“The issue with the car washes primarily was large numbers of people not social distancing,” said Dr. Alisa Haushalter, director of the Shelby County Health Department. “That’s the main reason they were supposed to close.”
The city said most car wash owners complied, but a dozen continued to operate. Code enforcement says it was forced to shut them down.
According to tax records, many of those car washes belonged to LLCs or people out of state, but some were locally owned — by the same people.
An employee for George Little, owner of one of those car washes, told WREG the employees “had no prior knowledge that the car wash was supposed to shut down. No notification at all.”
She also said no one with the city could tell them when notice was sent out.
We spoke to her on the phone April 7, after the mayor called out Soft Cloth Wash on Southern for staying open.
In the weeks to follow, the city said more problems were not resolved at car washes owend by LIttle.
We tried contacting him again, but had no luck.
Meanwhile, we spoke to the owner of a car wash on Winchester on the phone. He also told us no one communicated with him back in April.
He says he complied after Code Enforcement placed “Do not occupy” placards on his facilities, but he feels car washes should have always been able to operate since the bays are more than six feet apart.
He also said he’s not aware of any fines or citations and has reopened under the mayor’s back-to-business plan.
According to Jennifer Sink, the city’s chief legal officer, fully automated car washes have been allowed to operate since April 21, but self-serve and full-service car washes are not allowed to be open.
“The City is enforcing this restriction, but we are working with the owners of those establishments to keep them in compliance. Any business that is not in compliance with the Mayor’s Order, the Governor’s Order or the Health Department Directive, including car washes, is subject to a Misdemeanor citation, which includes fines against the owner,” Sink said.
Haushalter said the goal of officials is to provide education, not to do punitive enforcement.
As the area enters a new phase of reopening the economy, police and code enforcement continue to stay busy. Last weekend there were reportedly around two dozen calls. A majority of the calls were for crowds, and 11 for businesses accused not following rules.
The city has said fully automated car washes are allowed to reopen, and some businesses can submit plans to reopen. Those will be decided on a case to case basis by the back to business subcommittee.