North Carolina will move into Phase Two of its reopening plan tonight, with restaurants allowing patrons inside for the first time in weeks as bars remain closed.

But what about breweries?

The North Carolina Craft Brewers Guild thinks the state’s breweries should be able to open under Gov. Roy Cooper’s plan for Phase Two, but is seeking a clear answer.

“We do not believe our breweries, taprooms or brewpubs meet Executive Order 141’s definition of ‘bars,’ and we are continuing to work with the Governor’s office to clarify this matter,” said Richard Greene, the guild’s executive director.

North Carolina is known for producing some of the best beer in the nation. Cities like Asheville and Charlotte are destinations for beer fans to crawl through multiple breweries in a weekend. In the past few years, the Triangle’s beer scene has collected its own national acclaim.

But most breweries don’t serve food, relying on food trucks or nearby restaurants to handle the food while they take care of the beer.

In an email to members Wednesday night, the Craft Brewers Guild made its case that a brewery isn’t a bar under state law.

Jacki Keating, marketing and communications for Wooden Robot Brewery in Charlotte, said the South End site will not reopen this weekend.

She said it’s unclear if the brewery is considered a bar or restaurant because they serve food and also have a production facility. Wooden Robot also has a kitchen in the taproom that serves food from Twisted Eats by Kre8, so they are waiting for more clarification from the state.

“We are not opening the taproom this weekend, and we will be continuing with our to-go sales waiting for more clarity,” Keating said.

‘Fighting for crumbs’

Cooper said Wednesday that North Carolina’s coronavirus data, specifically an increase in case counts, led his office to take a more modest approach to Phase Two of the state’s reopening plan. That modest approach meant restaurants could open, but bars and nightclubs could not.

Downtown Raleigh bar and restaurant owner Zack Medford formed the North Carolina Bar, Brewery and Nightclub Association on Wednesday to advocate for that slice of the industry, he said. Delaying the opening of bars will push a suffering industry to the brink, Medford said.

“I was extremely disappointed to see that bars would be treated differently from restaurants,” Medford said. “Bars have been closed for two months and now will have to be closed another five weeks. That’s two rent payments for employees, that’s insurance payments, car payments. We at least need more options, some creative solutions.”

The options Medford said he would like to see include expanding outdoor seating into public spaces, like sidewalks and parking lots, and offering cocktails to-go, an idea that was proposed and then left out of a General Assembly relief package.

“We’re out here fighting for crumbs on the table; we’ll take anything we can get,” Medford said.

Phase Two too slow

On Thursday, Senate leader Phil Berger of Eden criticized Cooper’s Phase Two plan as too slow, and he said legislative action is possible that could allow shuttered bars to reopen outdoor patio service. Berger said the new executive order is “somewhat inconsistent” in how it treats similar businesses.

“I still feel as though the governor and secretary are going slower than the science would show is appropriate,” he said. “I don’t know how you can explain to the bar owners why a restaurant that serves mixed drinks can serve someone on their patio a mixed drink, and a bar owner cannot.”

Berger said the Senate will likely move forward next week with a pair of bills from Sen. Rick Gunn, R-Alamance, that would allow restaurants, bars, breweries and wineries to offer additional outdoor seating space while maintaining social distancing.

In a press briefing Thursday, N.C. Secretary of Health Mandy Cohen addressed the differing timelines for bars and restaurants. The risks posed by opening too many businesses at once largely led the disctinction, she said.

“All of these activities have risks,” Cohen said of the reopened businesses. “The question is should we be doing them all at the same time? The data really was saying to us that we need to take a modest step and continue to go slow. It’s not an on-off switch, unfortunately. We have to think of this as a dimmer switch and bring this up slowly.”

Kim Hammer isn’t opening Bittersweet, her downtown Raleigh dessert shop and bar, this weekend and doubts she’ll open by next weekend.

“We’re not ready, that’s the short answer,” Hammer said. “I’m very concerned about my employees’ safety, so we’re in wait and see mode right now.”

Bittersweet is known for its desserts and cocktails and in the time before coronavirus was a popular piece of Raleigh’s nightlife scene. Still, it’s legally considered a restaurant, while Hammer’s other business, Johnson Street Yacht Club, is a bar through and through. Bittersweet is an enclosed space and Johnson Street has outdoor picnic tables.

Hammer said that in considering the reopening of each, the bar seemed to pose the greater challenges.

“The distinction is interesting, because in contemplating bars and restaurants, we felt it was going to be significantly more challenging at the bar than the restaurant,” Hammer said. “Just given the way people use bars. There’s a free flow, people visiting tables. At Bittersweet, you don’t see a lot of people visiting other tables. But at a bar, people are walking around. To take that quality away from a bar is to created a completely different atmosphere.”

This article is published through the N.C. News Collaborative, a partnership of Lee, Gannett and McClatchy newspapers in North Carolina that aims to better inform readers throughout the state.

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