By John Trump
Carolina Journal News Service
RALEIGH — Owners of a popular Greenville bar claim Gov. Roy Cooper’s COVID-19 shutdown orders violate their constitutional rights. They’re taking the governor to court with help from a national group.
News of the lawsuit arrives as Cooper’s latest executive order permits bars and restaurants to sell mixed alcoholic drinks to-go in sealed containers.
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 their new 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 Waldrons filed suit Monday, Dec. 21, in Wake County Superior Court.
Club 519’s doors have been shut for nine months, since the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. The bar shut down along with many other N.C. businesses after Cooper declared a March 10 state of emergency.
Since that date, subsequent executive orders from Cooper have allowed nearly every establishment that sells alcoholic beverages to reopen. 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.
“The governor’s executive orders allowed bars in restaurants and hotels — as well as bottle shops, breweries, cideries, distilleries, meaderies, and wineries — to reopen in May, yet Club 519 is still closed,” Thompson said in a news release.
“Such arbitrary action is hardly surprising when the governor has usurped legislative authority to unilaterally control the State’s response to COVID-19,” she added. “Fortunately for the Waldrons, the North Carolina Constitution prohibits this unequal burden on the fundamental right to earn a living and guarantees the separation of powers in the State.”
Right now, private bars can only serve outdoors at 30% capacity, while bars in hotels and restaurants, as well as bottle shops, breweries, cideries, distilleries, meaderies, and wineries, are allowed to operate at 50% capacity — indoors and outdoors, according to the news release. Like many private bars in North Carolina, Club 519 has no outdoor space and must remain closed.
“There’s no reasonable distinction between these businesses,” Thompson said in the interview. “We think it’s just pure economic favoritism.”
The Waldrons “have spent more than 18 years making Club 519 a popular fixture in Greenville, especially among the locals, but if they don’t reopen soon, they will be forced to close their doors and, worse, lose their primary source of income,” according to the news release.
“There are two things that we really hope come out of this lawsuit,” Thompson said. “One, we would like to reassert the fundamental right of all North Carolinians to earn a living. We would also like to reassert that the separation of powers in our constitutional government is for the protection of individual liberty. It’s important that when we respond to any sort of crisis that the governor and the General Assembly work together, craft a policy response, and institute that. That way all North Carolinians are represented, not just those that have the ear of the governor.”
As Thompson worked to file her complaint, Cooper announced his latest COVID-19 executive order. It allows restaurants, bars, clubs, and hotels to sell sealed to-go containers of mixed alcoholic drinks. The order was set to take effect at 5 p.m. Monday, Dec. 21, and last through Jan. 31, 2021.