NC bar owners want to see science behind decision to keep them closed

Posted May 29, 2020 6:10 p.m. EDT
Updated May 29, 2020 7:22 p.m. EDT

— Bar owners across North Carolina are holding off on a lawsuit against Gov. Roy Cooper's restrictions that continue to keep bars closed during the coronavirus pandemic so they can review the data state officials are using to justify the closures.

The North Carolina Bar and Tavern Association said they plan to meet with members of Cooper's administration and the state Attorney General's Office on Monday or Tuesday.

"If the breweries are open, restaurants are open, distilleries, wineries, then bars need to be open too, Zack Medford, president of the association and owner of Isaac Hunter’s Tavern in Raleigh. "We need to be held to the exact same standards."

Cooper last week moved the state into a second phase of resuming business and social activities during the pandemic. Restaurants, breweries and wineries were allowed to operate at half capacity, but bars were ordered to remain closed until late June. Bars had been part of Phase 2 when Cooper first laid out his three-part plan in April.

Lawmakers on Thursday passed legislation that would allow bars to reopen by using outdoor seating for up to 100 people or 50 percent of their indoor capacity, whichever is less. Cooper has criticized the measure, which also would prevent him or local health authorities from shutting bars down again if there's a spike in new virus infections.

"This legislation would mean that, even if there is a surge that overwhelms our hospitals, that bars will stay open," the governor said Thursday.

NCBATA said it wants to "see the information he relied on" in deciding to leave bars out of Phase 2 before proceeding with a lawsuit.

"There is still a lot of COVID in the community, and if we are not careful about our reopening, we will see more people in the hospital," said Cameron Wolfe, an associate professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Duke University's School of Medicine.

Even though he backs the state's go-slow approach, Wolfe said bars, known as places for people to congregate and spend time in close quarters, could conceivably operate safely.

"I think it is possible. It takes some good forethought," he said.

Bar owners would have to keep people apart and change how they move and are served, among other things.

"Provided you are ahead of the thinking about saying, 'Where do I want my customers to actually stand and wait and congregate?' I think you can work your way around it same as a restaurant does," Wolfe said. "A bar will never get to zero risk when you start putting people in it, but there are things you can mitigate."

Some North Carolina gym owners have already filed suit over Cooper's restrictions, and a federal judge denied a restraining order sought by strip clubs across the state seeking to reopen. A group of bowling alleys also have threatened to sue.

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