Big Games, Big Crowds: A Note on Occupancy Law

Last night, Wisconsin Badger fans and foes alike filled bars and restaurants to watch the final NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship game. ESPN Milwaukee reported that nearly five and a half hours prior to tip-off, one Madison bar was already turning people away because the bar was at maximum capacity. But what does that matter? Does “maximum occupancy” serve a purpose? As someone completely unfamiliar with owning or managing property, I went looking for information about occupancy.

A quick Google search led me to an article on The eHow article author noted that local fire marshals are the ultimate authority when it comes to occupancy permits. The fire marshal tip helped me find the Milwaukee’s Department of Neighborhood Service’s page about occupancy permits.

The DNS’s page outlines what is required and when: a Certificate of Occupancy is required before a new business, church, agency, school or organization opens in a new or existing building. I assumed that occupancy only relates to the number of people that may occupy a space. I assumed wrong. Based on the information DNS’s Occupancy Inspection handout, occupancy is also related to whether people can occupy a space—whether the space is safe to occupy. Specific information about certificates of occupancy can be found at the DNS’s page, linked above.

Back to the original question: what purpose does “maximum occupancy” serve? The purpose is sound: to ensure the safety of patrons when there is an emergency requiring all to exit in a short period of time. This DNS flier from 2005 explains how maximum occupancy numbers may be determined.

No news sources have recently reported on occupancy law enforcement or fines. However, bar and tavern owners should still avoid packing an establishment past maximum occupancy. Around the time that the DNS flier about maximum occupancy was published, Milwaukee police fined at least three Milwaukee bars between $10,000 and $40,000—likely large financial hardships, especially for mom-and-pop taverns—for exceeding maximum occupancy. These fines were part of a push by Milwaukee police to avoid tragedies like those that had occurred at night clubs in Chicago and Rhode Island in 2003.

Perhaps the 2005 crackdown on over-occupancy is the reason why, luckily, there have not been reports of fines or tragedies. Today, we can all smile a little (or a lot, depending on whether you’re a fan of Badgers) after Wisconsin’s loss last night, knowing that even if taverns and bars were filled for the game, no tragedies occurred.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Deborah Darin

    Your post gives an excellent example of a local regulation and enforcement by a local agency, This is administrtive law at its most basic: a publicly supported, municipal agency working as it was designed to do, under municipal ordinance authority, to protect the public.

  2. Elizabeth Oestreich

    Thank you for the response, Professor Darin!

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