Isaac Hunter's Tavern

Barred From Reopening

In Eat, July/August 2020 by Jane PorterLeave a Comment

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A new lobbying group serves the interests of the state’s bars, taverns and nightclub owners.

Shock and disappointment. 

That was the reaction from bar, tavern and nightclub owners all over Raleigh who learned their businesses would not be able to reopen in Gov. Roy Cooper’s phase two lifting of COVID-19 restrictions in North Carolina on May 22. Meanwhile, restaurants, breweries, wineries and distilleries all got the green light.

Zack Medford, who co-owns the bottle shop Paddy O’Beers, Isaac Hunter’s Tavern, the retro nightclub Coglin’s and several bars in Wilmington, was among the many expecting to be operational again but, fully a month after other businesses were allowed to reopen, bars and taverns were still ordered closed. 

“Ultimately, there are plenty of restaurants that function more like bars, and plenty of bars that function more like restaurants, and we think the only thing we can do is get fair treatment across the board,” Medford says.

To help achieve that goal, Medford established the North Carolina Bar and Tavern Association, a nonprofit organization similar to the North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association that lobbies exclusively for nightclubs, taverns and bars. Medford is president of the association’s board and the group now counts more than 200 bars and nightclubs from across the state as members. 

Zack Medford
Zack Medford

“Up until now, bars really have not had a seat at the table,” Medford says. “We had not participated on anything with the NCRLA up until the governor made the [phase two] announcement. [The NCRLA] is an ally, but, ultimately, the vast majority of its membership is restaurants and hotels. So if there is a deal on the table to be made that helps restaurants and hotels, but is maybe not so great for bars, then it’s the NCRLA’s duty to make that deal. That’s why we need to be in those discussions going forward.”

Concurrent with legislation passed in the North Carolina General Assembly to reopen bars across the state—which Cooper has twice vetoed—NCBATA filed a lawsuit against the Cooper administration seeking to reopen under the same rules as restaurants and breweries. NCBATA crowdsourced nearly $20,500 to cover legal fees and attorney Mike Tadych from the Raleigh-based firm Stevens Martin Vaughn & Tadych filed the suit on behalf of more than 50 bar owners early last month, asking that they be allowed to open under phase two at half capacity.

In a hearing on June 19, Tadych argued that allowing bars to reopen would mean they could join 85 percent of North Carolina’s bar industry that has already been allowed to reopen so far. 

“We’re not asking for special treatment, we’re not asking to open the floodgates,” Tadych said. “These businesses have been dead in the water for 94 days, with zero income to fight through this.”

But Amar Majmundar, the attorney defending Cooper’s order, cited a memo from NC DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen positing that people behave differently in bars than they do in restaurants, spending longer periods of time in a confined space where they’re often close together, singing, dancing and yelling to be heard over music and other noise. 

During the hearing, Majmundar emphasized that COVID-19 still remained a public health threat with numbers of cases and hospitalizations in the state still climbing throughout June. 

“In the face of the pandemic, lives are at stake,” Majmundar said. “In the face of that grim reality, the governor is not only permitted, but is obligated, to the best of his ability, to protect the public health.” 

Following the hearing, judge James Gale was expected to rule on the lawsuit a few days after Raleigh Magazine went to press.

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