RALEIGH — In defiance of executive orders and judicial rulings, several Raleigh bars opened Friday night for the first time in more than three months, drawing a rebuke from the mayor.
The move came hours after a North Carolina judge denied a request from the N.C. Bar and Tavern Association to reopen. The group had sued Gov. Roy Cooper in an effort to reopen bars while following the same capacity and social-distancing restrictions as restaurants.
“The bars are in violation of the Governor’s executive order,” Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin said in a text Saturday afternoon. “I urge their compliance before more severe enforcement action is required.”
When North Carolina moved into Phase 2 of its reopening plan, Cooper allowed restaurants, but not bars, to reopen at half capacity. The Republican-led General Assembly has passed bar-reopening bills, which Cooper, a Democrat, has vetoed. Two lawsuits have been brought by bar owners seeking to reopen, and both were unsuccessful.
On Wednesday, amid days of record-setting coronavirus case counts in North Carolina, Cooper extended the state’s Phase 2 restrictions for another three weeks, making it likely that bars would remain closed until mid-July.
Around 9:30 p.m. Friday, the Raleigh bar Cornerstone Tavern began checking IDs and letting people inside. Cornerstone is one of numerous bars owned by Dan Lovenheim.
Lovenheim spoke briefly with The News & Observer, but declined to say why he opened the bar, or comment on any legal framework that would allow the bar to operate. Other bars also were open or posted on social media about planning to be open Friday night.
At Cornerstone, there was a food truck parked out back, tables were spaced apart and there were some decals along the floor in front of the bar reminding people to keep a distance of six feet. Alchemy, another Lovenheim bar across Glenwood Avenue from Cornerstone was also open for a few hours.
Off-duty Raleigh police officers worked as security guards outside both bars. Questions to both about how the bars could open despite the executive order were referred to the Raleigh Police Department public information office. Spokeswoman Donna-maria Harris said RPD officers would not work security for any bar that is supposed to be closed.
Attorney says bars are ‘private clubs’
Attorney Mike Tadych, who represented the N.C. Bar and Tavern Association in its lawsuit against the governor, pointed to a May 24 memo from the N.C. Alcoholic Beverage Commission as the basis for some of the bars opening, saying they were operating as “private clubs.” According to the memo, private clubs have some level of food service in place.
“Cornerstone and Alchemy fit that description under the ABC regulation,” Tadych said, pointing to food specials the bars would sometimes offer.
In North Carolina, food must account for at least 30% of a business’s total sales to get a restaurant permit to sell mixed drinks. Otherwise, the business has to operate as a private club, or what most people think of as a bar. But the kind of permit a business has doesn’t necessarily mean they’re a bar or a restaurant. Some places with a private bar permit have food sales over 30% and look and operate as a restaurant.
With restaurants, brewery taprooms, wineries and distilleries able to serve drinks, Tadych argued that most of the state’s bar industry is already open.
”The notion that bars aren’t open is a fallacy,” Tadych said. “The bars are open, just not the subsection we represent.”
On Saturday afternoon, Tadych released a statement on behalf of Glenwood South bars asserting the legality of their reopening as private clubs.
“In reopening as Private Clubs under the Phase 2 Order on Friday night, the Glenwood South operators did so after carefully studying the Phase 2 Order and all of the legal and other guidance offered by the Governor and ABC,” the statement read, in part.
“They went above and beyond the restrictions required in the Phase 2 Order. They encouraged patrons to disburse when waiting for entry and required everyone entering their premises to wear a mask or sign that they had a medical or religious reason for not doing so. To say that they reopened illegally or unlawfully is the furthest thing from the truth.”