Business

State regulators threaten liquor licenses of Raleigh bars that opened without authorization

Posted June 29, 2020 5:38 p.m. EDT
Updated June 29, 2020 7:27 p.m. EDT

— Despite a state order that North Carolina bars remain closed until at least mid-July to limit the spread of coronavirus, several bars in Raleigh's Glenwood South neighborhood opened on Friday night.

That prompted warning letters to the bar's owners from the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission over the weekend.

"The purpose of this letter is to give fair warning," each of the letters, dated June 27, states. "Unless you take immediate steps to comply with the law and protect the public’s health, the ABC Commission may seek serious and substantial sanctions against your alcohol permits."

Tony Basford, who owns Plus Dueling Piano Bar, was among the seven bar owners to get an ABC warning letter.

When he reopened Friday night for the first time since mid-March, Basford said he would allow enough customers for only one-third of the bar's capacity and require everyone to wear masks.

"We go way above and beyond anything that a restaurant does by far," he said.

Restaurants have been allowed to operate at half capacity for more than a month, which has become a bone of contention for bar owners. They challenged Gov. Roy Cooper's restrictions in court, but a judge last week denied their request for a temporary restraining order that would have allowed them to reopen immediately.

A lawyer representing the bars issued a statement on Saturday declaring that they were opening as "private clubs," which Cooper allowed to reopen along with restaurants in late May, so they weren't violating the law.

"We did not open in defiance. We opened in compliance to show the true absurdity of what is happening here," Dan Lovenheim, who received two ABC warning letters as the owner of Cornerstone Tavern and Alchemy, wrote in a text message to WRAL News on Monday.

Lovenheim noted that 85 percent of the state's bars – those in restaurants and hotels, as well as private clubs – are allowed to be open and that Cooper "gives everyone the false impression they are not and we are safe in that way."

"We truly feel for the safety of this state that all alcohol-serving establishments should be prohibited from serving alcohol at this time," he texted. "15% of the problem makes no difference one way or another whatsoever."

Basford said Monday that he met in person Saturday with ABC officials and state Alcohol Law Enforcement agents and, like the other owners, agreed to close down again. He said he is now considering seeking a restaurant permit if bars must remain shuttered past July 17.

ALE needed to clarify the "mixed messages" bar owners have gotten, Raleigh Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin said.

"I do think they tried to do the right thing on Friday, but I also think it was a violation of the executive order," Baldwin said. "They felt that they had legal recourse to allow them to do that."

When she heard from bar owners last week that they were considering opening, she said, she pleaded with them to be careful.

"I understand the frustration. I understand, when they see restaurants open, they're sitting there thinking, 'Why can't we open?'" she said. "I told them that they needed to be on their best behavior, that they needed to ensure that people were wearing masks. Frankly, at one point, I made a call and asked them to close."

Baldwin issued a citywide mask mandate after seeing crowds of people in the Glenwood South district two weeks ago ignoring social distancing guidelines and not wearing masks. Crowds have continued to flout social distancing and local and state mask rules in subsequent weekends.