On Saturday night in Hanover, the neon blue longhorn of Cancun Cantina blazed brightly over a parking lot packed with cars.
Pop country music spilled out into the otherwise quiet stretch of Old Telegraph Road as bouncers in neon yellow t-shirts and cloth gaitor face coverings checked IDs.
It was a Saturday night unlike any other, except it was a pandemic and the health department was on its way.
Inside the country western bar, cowboy booted line dancers pivoted and stomped at a respectable distance. Masked busing staff ferried plastic trays of pub fare from spaced out tables full of unmasked, but seated people.
But in the room over, a tented space with all flaps down, the scene appeared a little less compliant with Anne Arundel County’s COVID-19 restrictions.
Masks hung loosely around necks, exposing toothy smiles shining under black lights.
Smiles faded as health inspectors pushed through the door.
The Anne Arundel County Health Department went to Cancun Cantina in Hanover Saturday night, saying they staged the surprise inspection to investigate tips that the bar hosted salsa nights, concerts and packed DJ events for weeks that health inspectors believed flouted protocols set to stop COVID-19 from killing more county residents.
The scene illustrated the tension between business owners trying to comply with restrictions while keeping their businesses afloat and health officers trying to enforce them.
The inspection, which saw health inspectors enter the nightclub in search of violations, came after the restaurant previously broke pandemic restrictions this fall, as infections mounted heading into the holiday season.
Before chief liquor board inspector Wayne Harris made his way through the glass doors, he met with colleagues from the health department and police department in an empty parking lot outside a nearby Dunkin’ Donuts.
Inspectors said they received a slew of complaints after the bar hosted the bands Doc Martens and the Flannels Feb. 20. The county Board of License Commissioners and the health department waited until Saturday because likely there wouldn’t be much activity on Monday night.
Harris was waiting for the green light from two inspectors who had gone into the establishment about an hour before for observation. Harris said the notes from the observing inspectors would help him know where to focus when he arrived.
Once the inspection started, patrons pooled at the door as inspectors wandered around inside.
A bouncer in a neon yellow t-shirt locked the glass doors to the outside with eager bar-goers inside while the inspection took place. A line quickly formed outside, curling around palm trees wrapped in Christmas lights.
One of a handful of patrons leaving warned those waiting: “they’re being crazy strict in there.”
A man who identified himself as the bar owner approached a reporter for The Capital, not knowing she was a reporter and told her to grab a seat or a ledge to comply with health department restrictions.
Foodservice establishments in Anne Arundel County are currently allowed to operate at 50% capacity indoors. Outdoor dining is permitted as long as 50% of the tent sides remain up. As of Thursday, food services establishments are recommended but not required to use contact tracing methods.
Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman relaxed restrictions Thursday, bringing Anne Arundel into alignment with the most liberal permissions of Gov. Larry Hogan. The raid came as cases in the county have been on the decline, but Pittman and other county officials have cautioned residents to stay vigilant, wear masks, limit social gatherings and avoid high-risk contacts.
“The gentleman who manages the club was very cooperative with us,” said Harris, the health inspector. “We did see some violations. Number wise it was quite a few, not in the quantity of violations but in the number of patrons.”
Total capacity for the bar is over 2,000, so Harris said the nightclub was not over the 50% capacity rule.
But inspectors spotted people standing and consuming alcohol at the bar, a violation in itself.
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“The stools, every one was occupied,” Harris said.
The health department cited Cancun Cantina in late October for a violation of the county mask policy. Online records show the situation was corrected and the case was closed.
The restaurant is one of dozens of county businesses cited since the county ramped up enforcement in July. At least six businesses have been temporarily shut down for failure to comply with COVID-19 rules.
Facebook videos posted since Feb. 15 show the bar hosted salsa dancing nights, where masked couples twirled back-to-back while patrons sat at the bar and watched. Another video shows a concert on Feb. 20. As grunge band Doc Marten and the Flannels play, maskless concert-goers jump and mosh to the music, screaming the lyrics and bumping into one another.
The business is registered in Maryland under Nancy Ann Andrew Family, LLC according to state tax records.
Anne Arundel County Inspectors head into the Cancun Cantina nightclub in Hanover Saturday night. (Karl Merton Ferron)
This story will be updated.