Bar Owners Say ABC Is Canceling Permits, Blocking Post-COVID Reopening

By John Trump
Carolina Journal News Service

RALEIGH — The N.C. Bar Owners Association, in a news release, says the N.C. ABC has canceled some 120 permits for private bars, without notice.

Private bars in North Carolina, for all intents and purposes, have been closed since March, although the governor in October allowed them to open outdoor seating at very limited capacity. But, obviously, winter is here.

The release from the bar owners says bars were given an option — by the legislature and state Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission — to defer for 60 days after reopening. Many, because they have no outdoor seating and otherwise limited space, never reopened.

“No notice was provided to these private bar owners that their permits were in jeopardy of being canceled for failure to pay,” the release says.

Bar owners are telling the association that agents for state Alcohol Law Enforcement agents are visiting bar owners with orders to close or face charges.

Jeff Strickland, ABC spokesman, said the move is a formality for bars that haven’t reopened. Their business, he said, has been moved to inactive status, because they aren’t operating. But they are still obligated, by statute, to pay the permitting fee, should they decide to reopen. The bars, however, won’t have to complete other required steps to reopen, including background checks.

The ABC, says Strickland, wants to make it as easy as possible for the closed bars to safely return.

“We want to assure bar owners we will work with them when they’re ready to get back into business,” he told Carolina Journal.

Bars, it could be argued, have indeed been hardest hit by Gov. Roy Cooper’s lockdowns. Executive orders from Cooper have allowed nearly every establishment that sells alcoholic beverages to reopen, but the governor’s restrictions are too draconian for most bar owners. Yet those orders have forced most private bars to remain closed. N.C. law considers an establishment to be a private bar if it serves alcohol but not food.

Bar owners have pleaded with the governor, and even filed lawsuits. To no avail.

“This is Governor Cooper and his team picking winners and losers and grinding down small business owners once again,” said Zack Medford, founder and president of the N.C. Bar and Tavern Association.

In December, owners of a popular Greenville bar, claiming Cooper’s COVID-19 shutdown orders violate their constitutional rights, filed suit.

Crystal and Kenneth Waldron, owners of Club 519 in the college city’s uptown district, argue that Cooper’s executive orders treat private bars differently from other businesses that serve alcohol. That different treatment from the governor amounts to an unconstitutional action, according to the lawsuit.

“He’s been picking economic winners and losers,” said Jessica Thompson, the Waldrons’ attorney, during an interview with Carolina Journal. Thompson works with the Pacific Legal Foundation. “Unfortunately, we’ve been on the losing end. ”

The PLF on Friday, Jan. 15, filed a motion for preliminary injunction allowing the bar to reopen immediately.

Thompson, in responding to a request from WRAL, on Friday said the move by ABC for fees is troubling, “especially in the face of constitutional lawsuits asserting discriminatory treatment. Most private bars, like Club 519, have been closed for nearly a year. It makes no sense to deprive them of their livelihood and yet force them to pay fees they can’t afford. It’s another example of Governor Cooper kicking private bars when they’re down and forcing them into a permanent closure.

“All of this while bars in restaurants and other eating establishments, wineries, distilleries, breweries, taprooms, brewpubs, cideries, meaderies, private clubs, bottle shops, and wine shops continue to serve customers alcohol indoors at 50% capacity. Private bars just want equal treatment and a chance to follow the same health and safety precautions that apply to other establishments.”

A second lawsuit, seeking to have a key piece of the state Emergency Management Act declared unconstitutional, came a day after the Greenville suit. Plaintiffs in that suit own and operate bars in Guilford, Forsyth, New Hanover, Buncombe, and Wake counties, in addition to Carteret.

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