The photo doesn’t look great.
A dozen college students stand around a bar, apparently mask-less, seemingly on top of one another. “Ho house rn… I wish I was kidding” reads the caption, referring to the Hokie House restaurant on Blacksburg’s Main Street.
The image, posted on Saturday night, ricocheted across social media, swiftly becoming a hot bit of gossip that fed into concerns about how well Virginia Tech students could handle physical distancing — and how well local bars could crack down on alcohol-induced behavior that can help spread the coronavirus. A recent spike in COVID-19 cases in the Hampton Roads region led Gov. Ralph Northam on Tuesday to cut off alcohol sales there at 10 p.m.
The photo also prompted the university’s 77,000-follower Twitter account to direct people to the Virginia Department of Health business violation complaint form.
“Thank you for bringing this to our attention. We have shared this with” the Dean of Students Office, Tech wrote in replies to accounts flagging the image. “You can also report businesses violating #COVID19 rules to” the Virginia Department of Health, it said, with a link to the form.
Over three days, the health department logged 54 complaints against the Hokie House.
“The new river valley doesn’t have the infrastructure to support a pandemic and these rowdy college students no longer care about social distancing,” said one complaint. “Please investigate this. I am a college student returning to the blacksburg area in August and am afraid that instances like these will cause the university to shut down due to an outbreak,” read another.
A third simply said, “Please make it stop.”
But that’s where the story becomes more complicated.
Health Department District Reviewer Thomas Hill wrote in notes that he had spoken with an owner of the Hokie House who said there was no overcrowding that weekend, according to records obtained by The Roanoke Times through a Virginia Freedom of Information Act request.
Hill wrote that the owner said public health signs are posted, employees are required to wear masks, and that tables are spaced apart. Hill wrote, “May be a case of sabotage.”
“The picture doesn’t justify what’s actually going on in the Hokie House,” owner Brian Palmer, 40, said Wednesday. “This has been absolutely infuriating for us, and we feel like we’ve been thrown under the bus.”
Many of the complaints appear to come from individuals who had seen the photo on social media but had not been in the bar that night, according to comments in the Health Department records.
On Thursday afternoon, according to Palmer, a health department official said that the Hokie House would be cleared of any violations .
Bobby Parker, a health department spokesman, said that as of Thursday, the department “would characterize” the investigation into the complaints as “ongoing,” and that it “would be premature” to say more.
Palmer said the image is a screenshot of a Snapchat video taken by a customer. Palmer said the angle makes it appear customers are closer together than they really are, according to the restaurant’s own camera feed. He said he showed those images to a Virginia ABC officer, who he says, “literally just laughed it off.”
And even the photo circulating on social media doesn’t actually show a violation, Palmer said.
State rules allow patrons to remove their masks inside while eating and drinking.
Still, research increasingly suggests COVID-19 can spread even among the kind of small droplets that people exhale, so public health officials emphasize the importance of good indoor ventilation, mask-wearing and keeping far apart.
Palmer said Hokie House has been deliberate in following guidelines from the state health department to keep customers safe.
“We’re not just two dopes that own a bar and try to make some money,” said Palmer, who has owned the 1967 bar since 2010. “This is our livelihood, and we’re getting trashed. And to get trashed by Virginia Tech like this is absolute bull----.”
A Tech spokesman said the university and broader community “are in this together,” amid the pandemic, and that in this particular incident, “Virginia Tech simply provided information (to those who raised concerns) as to the appropriate authority to address the concern raised.”
A Reddit account that disseminated the photo widely did not respond to multiple direct messages seeking comment for this story. A Twitter account that shared the photo prominently said it came from a private Snapchat story but did not respond to further questions.
Champs Downtown Sportsbar & Cafe appears to be the only other Blacksburg bar that has received multiple complaints in recent days, Health Department data show. Three complaints on Sunday against Champs contained the exact same wording in a comments section.
“Champs has hardly any regulations or direction for its customers to folllw [sic],” the complaints said. “People are not being seated by employees and there are large gatherings of strangers standing, crowding and intermingling. The bar has no signage up regarding COVID regulations nor has implemented anything regarding social distance. You would never know there was a pandemic going on when inside of this bar.”
The owner of Champs didn’t respond to a message left with a manager on Thursday. But informed of the story’s focus on possibly unfounded complaints against Hokie House, the manager noted that Champs has its own share of disgruntled customers.
For Palmer, the university’s promotion of the Health Department’s complaint form merely added insult to an already injurious situation.
“I don’t think it’s fair that Virginia Tech jumped on us like that. Technically, they didn’t do anything wrong, it’s just more unfair than wrong,” he said. “We’ve got just hundreds of compliments over the last few weeks about how we’ve been doing with the rules.”