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BAR EXAM: Class action lawsuit seeks reopening for NC’s private bars

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A ticker on ncbata.org keeps track of how long North Carolina’s private bars have been closed. Screenshot by Jeff Oloizia

 

As North Carolina restaurants, breweries, wineries, distilleries, bottle shops, hotel bars, and country club bars gear up for Monday service, a clock ticks away on ncbata.org. The North Carolina Bar and Tavern Association website has been keeping track of how long bars operating with a DZ Mixed Beverage Private Bar license have been closed due to the novel coronavirus. Right now, that count is at 90 days.

On Friday, June 5, Governor Roy Cooper vetoed House Bill 536. It would have allowed bars to open with 50% of their capacity outdoors. “House Bill 536 would limit the ability of leaders to respond quickly to COVID-19 and hamper the health and safety of every North Carolinian,” he said in a statement.

This refusal to compromise has enraged bar owners, including Wilmington’s own Lector Bennett and Maaike Brender À Brandis of Cape Fear Wine and Beer. They’ve released official statements on the bar’s Facebook page supporting NCBATA in their decision to file a lawsuit against Governor Cooper.

“As a part of the 15% of NC ABC permittees that cannot open, we are appreciative of [NCBATA’s] initiative to make progress,” explains Brandis. “If [other bars] can be trusted to open safely, why can’t we?”

Initially, Bennett and Brandis thought they would be granted permission to open as part of Governor Cooper’s phase two plan. This was not the case.

“It was devastating,” Bennett says. “Restaurant bars, hotel bars, breweries, wineries, distilleries, [and] bottle shops can have people drinking beers but we cannot! This seems crazy. We are able to sell off-premise beers, wines, ciders and meads but now that all the other types of drinking establishments have opened, our sales have dropped.”

Much of the bar owners’ frustrations stem from the fact that every single other type of permit holder in the state of North Carolina has been given the green light, while 1,063 private clubs remain dark. The governor’s hemming and hawing, while costing North Carolina residents thousands of dollars, is also bad for morale.

“We’re all feeling slighted, like second-rate establishments,” laments Brandis. “We want to be given the chance to open—and do it safely and cleanly—just like everyone else.”

 

 

Among other Wilmington business opposing the governor’s actions is Rocco’s Cigar Bar. Despite the bar’s unique business model—which currently allows customers to smoke but not consume alcohol in the indoor space—owner Steve Gimello expresses solidarity with bars unable to open. “We have been unfairly singled out,” he says. “Bar owners can handle any guidelines the governor has set for restaurants, breweries or distilleries.”

Jason Ruth, owner of Tinyz Tavern on Gordon Road, sees only one way forward. “While lines of communication remain open with the Governor’s office, we feel the courts are the best route for us all to get equal treatment under the order.”

The lawsuit demands a temporary restraining order from Executive Order 141, also known as phase two, allowing bars to reopen. Zack Medford, president of NCBATA, insists that, even though he has requested scientific data, proving that keeping private clubs closed is preventing the spread of COVID-19, the governor’s office has no such data. The lack of proof makes the governor’s decision seem arbitrary—or, worse, anti-bar.

“The governor keeps saying he’s based his decision on facts and data but refuses to show any proof that drinking in a bar is riskier than drinking at a restaurant or hotel bar,” explains Bennett. “When we are able to reopen, we plan on following the CDC and WHO guidelines to ensure safety.”

“Cape Fear Wine & Beer is very concerned about the spread of COVID-19,” Brandis confirms.

While North Carolina lawmakers continue to try to pass legislation to ease the financial burden of novel coronavirus, the infection rate and death toll continue to climb. Just last week, NC’s health secretary Mandy Cohen warned the recent spike in cases could cause current policy to roll backward and result in a second shutdown.

The NCBATA is pushing forward to try to get Governor Cooper to change his mind. The organization has started a GoFundMe page, in an attempt to raise capital for the extensive legal fees it takes to pull off the case. As of Monday, they have raised more than $20k of their $25k goal.

Bennett is hopeful this will be the bar’s saving grace. “Other than relocating the bar 70 miles south, this is our best chance at prevailing.”

 

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