Health Investigations

As the COVID-19 disease continues to spread, Louisville Metro officials are receiving a deluge of complaints from residents about businesses not heeding calls to shut down or scale back services.

Since Gov. Andy Beshear declared a state of emergency earlier this month, 114 complaints related to the coronavirus have been reported to city health officials as of noon Monday, according to online records. 

The complaints range from restaurants defying the governor’s order to close, factories and warehouses neglecting to provide safe conditions for workers, and other services falling short on social distancing.

Nearly 70 of the complaints came in Monday morning — a day after Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer encouraged residents to report businesses that fail to take necessary precautions to avoid spreading the contagious virus. 

Many of the complaints mirror national worries about the spreading pandemic: supply shortages for health workers, the lack of personal space in daily life.

One complainant alleged staff at a local hospital were not being allowed to work from home, despite being told they are non-essential. Several people complained of cramped bus rides or packed factory floors.

One person reported a gas station manager who continued to report to work and serve customers after he said his wife tested positive for the virus. Another complained of an adult bookstore staying open despite the order for all non-essential retail to close in-store sales. One complainant expressed concern about touchpad pay stalls at area gas stations, and the risk of germ sharing.

Several complaints allege employers were requiring non-essential personnel to report and work in tight quarters. A few complained of close working conditions at GE Appliance Park, on city road crews or at packing warehouses and call centers. At the JBS Swift slaughterhouse, an employee complained about working “elbow to elbow,” even as colleagues “left with fevers.”

A call to a city spokesperson wasn’t immediately returned Monday. A spokesperson for GE said the company will cease manufacturing options for one week beginning Monday.

A spokesperson for JBS said the company has taken several measures to protect the health of workers, including taking employees’ temperatures before they enter a plant.

We have had no positive cases of COVID-19 and no one at JBS Louisville is forced to work,” he said.

Many complaints said restaurants continue to offer dine-in services. One complained of a restaurant continuing to operate a self-serve salsa bar amid the spreading pandemic.

“I don’t think with Coronavirus that they should be doing this,” the complainant stated.

At the Cat Fish Haven Lake Bar and Grill, one complainant alleged last week that staff was continuing to serve people inside. But the owner, Curtis Ables, disagreed.

He said he got a call from the health department, and he denied the accusations. Then, officers with the city’s Alcoholic Beverage Control came to his restaurant and pay lake on Whipple Road in southwest Jefferson County.

“Then, I just shut down totally,” Ables said.

He said the voluntary shut down will hurt. Spring time is the start of the money season for Ables, who thinks the orders from the governor are a bit tough. He’s still letting people fish in the pay lake.

The sharp increase in complaints shows many residents are taking serious warnings from health and government officials that the pandemic is serious and that social distancing and isolation are imperative. 

But the data also raises questions about the ability of city inspectors to rein in rogue businesses.

The Louisville Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness is tasked with investigating the complaints. A spokesman for that agency said he is “up to my neck in alligators right now on COVID-19” and hadn’t yet had time to review the files, all of which flooded into the agency within the past week.  

All but eight of the files maintained in the city’s online database were closed by inspectors the same day they were reported, often with a note that the issue had been referred to another agency, like OSHA, the state’s Office of Inspector General or another agency related to the industry of the business. The online records provide little detail about any inspection by city crews, or if any penalties were levied against business owners.

Nearly all of the complaints were forwarded to other agencies for follow-ups or investigation. A handful were marked duly noted. 

The identities of complainants are not required, and not made public if they’re provided.

Complaints can be submitted online through the city’s 311 service here – https://louisvilleky.gov/government/metro311. The phone number is 502-574-5000, or 311.

The agency is on twitter @LouMetro311.

This story was updated to include a response from GE.

Jacob Ryan is a reporter for the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.