A Bars Bill and a Lawsuit Pave the Way for Early Reopening

In Buzz, May 2020, Web Exclusive by Jane Porter

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WEB EXCLUSIVE Updated: The state House voted 65-53 to pass the bill Thursday afternoon.

In a press conference, Gov. Cooper says he is not ready to reopen bars, citing “some of the highest numbers” of hospitalizations and deaths in North Carolina so far due to COVID-19.

“I know it is a tough time for business, and I believe that there will be a time when we can open bars, but that time is not now and I hope that the House will look at this carefully and senators will reconsider their choice about this,” Cooper said.

Today, you might be one step closer to enjoying your favorite drink at your favorite local bar—but you’ll have to be outdoors to do it.

A bill passed in the state Senate this morning in a 42-5 vote would allow bars to open and serve drinks to guests outside, on a patio or under a tent or awning, with social distancing and at a limited capacity. Previously, bars had been prohibited from opening under Gov. Roy Cooper’s phase two executive order, along with gyms and a handful of other businesses.

The vote came as a newly established lobbying group, the North Carolina Bar and Tavern Association, threatened to file a lawsuit against the Cooper administration if bars were forced to remain closed in phase two while restaurants and breweries have been allowed to reopen.

Zack Medford, co-owner of Isaac Hunter’s Hospitality and the founder and board president of the NC Bar and Tavern Association, says his group spent much of the last week working with lawmakers to get them to support the bill. And though the bill allows for limited reopening (at 50 percent of the bar’s current indoor capacity, or 100 customers, whichever is fewer) and paves the way for local governments to open streets and sidewalks for restaurant owners to space out their tables, Medford says the bill doesn’t go far enough.

“Being able to open our outdoor seating is definitely a step in the right direction but bars and restaurants are not to designed to operate at 50 percent capacity and there is really no way to be profitable at 50 percent capacity,” Medford says. “There is even less opportunity to be profitable with just your outdoor open. So we see this as the first step on a very long journey to getting our bars open, and doing it safely, but doing what is necessary.”

Mike Tadych, an attorney at the Raleigh-based firm Stevens Martin Vaughn & Tadych, will file the suit on behalf of more than 50 bar owners in the state tomorrow, Medford says. The complaint seeks a preliminary injunction that will allow bars to open immediately and asks that bars be considered under the same guidelines from NC DHHS currently governing the reopening of restaurants, breweries, wineries and distilleries.

Medford says he launched the Bar and Tavern Association because bars “haven’t really had a seat at the table up until now.” The lawsuit, he says, is a response to “misconceptions about what a bar is.” Though North Carolina law states that, if an establishment generates less than 30 percent of its revenue from food sales, it’s considered a bar, not a restaurant, the reality for many is less straightforward.

“That leaves out places like The Cardinal [which serves hot dogs] or Clockwork that function as restaurants but also have a bar component,” Medford says. “Maybe they don’t meet that 30 percent threshold but it is drawing these lines between who is to say what a bar is and is not. How do you define a bar? Is Tin Roof a restaurant? They have live music and people dancing all night long. Is it a bar? Ultimately, there are plenty of restaurants that function more like bars and plenty of bars that function more like restaurants. The only thing we can do is provide fair treatment across the board.”

Medford says he is optimistic about the outdoor seating bill’s chances of passing in the state House and that he hopes that Gov. Cooper will sign the bill into law. He says he hopes his lawsuit will speed along the reopening process for bars and allow bars and taverns to receive equal treatment going forward.

“I hope this is something the governor is paying attention to and see that we have got to find ways to help out the rest of us in our community that are suffering under this [executive order],” Medford says. “I hope he sees the writing on the wall here and understands what’s at stake.”

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