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Private Bar Owners Respond to Mixed Messages, Enforcement

The booze service blues

Officers with CMPD’s Alcohol Beverage Control Unit visited more than 50 private bars on Thursday, Aug. 20, to clarify the guidelines concerning onsite alcohol sales, consumption and enforcement during the COVID-19 pandemic, but many owners were only left more confused about guidelines after officers told them things that conflicted with what state officials have said.

According to Lezlie Briggs, co-owner of 1501 South Mint in the Wilmore neighborhood, a CMPD ABC officer told her on Aug. 20 that she is not allowed to have people consuming alcohol on the property, which has been a consistent rule for private bars and clubs that do not offer food service since Phase 2 of Gov. Cooper’s plan to reopen the state began on May 22.

Conflicting Enforcement From Officer to Officer 

Briggs does have a permanent food truck set up outside of her establishment that she believed counted as a kitchen, but was told it did not. Briggs said the CMPD officer also told her the business couldn’t operate in any capacity, not even to sell beer or wine to go, and would have to close down completely. That’s where those who are enforcing the rules locally split ways with state officials who are handing them down.

On the morning after the visit from CMPD, Briggs called the ALE special agent in charge of the Harrisburg district that covers Mecklenburg County and was told that the business wouldn’t have to shut down or surrender its license, as she was told just a matter of hours before.

“It’s one of those things where they’re enforcing it differently,” Briggs said. “We have counterparts who had to shut down last week, ‘private bars and clubs’ also applies to golf courses, also applies to some breweries, however, it’s just depending on who your officer is, it’s going to determine how it gets enforced … Then you have restaurants like Ink N Ivy who are violating every restaurant rule and guidance ever, but they’re still operating. I don’t get it. I don’t understand.”

According to North Carolina ABC Commission guidance on Executive Order 141 (Phase 2), an establishment can remain open if it is not deemed to be “principally engaged in the business of selling alcoholic beverages for onsite consumption.” Examples of these establishments include many breweries, distilleries, bottle shops and wine shops. Bars and taprooms are allowed to be open at those establishments, as long as they follow Mecklenburg County guidelines for gathering.

Establishments can also remain open if their pre-COVID operations typically included service of food and drink, and they were in full compliance with Phase 2 guidelines, including operating at 50% capacity. “Any restaurant that is open and serving alcohol should have an open kitchen,” writes the ABC guidance. “Food from the restaurant must be available at all times that alcoholic beverages are being served.”

The guidance does not address the issue around the sale of beer and wine to go.

Jackie DeLoach of Hattie's Tap & Tavern
Jackie DeLoach (left) of Hattie’s Tap & Tavern with Zach Pulliam of Abari (Photo by Lea Bekele)

Owners Take to Social Media

Owners at Hattie’s Tap & Tavern and Tommy’s Pub made social media posts stating that they were told things similar to what Briggs heard. “ALE is now stopping by and telling Private Clubs they aren’t allowed to sell to go beer and that we are supposed to be 100% closed, wrote Jackie DeLoach, owner of Hattie’s, in a Facebook post on Aug. 20.  “September will be 6 months closed. How the hell do they expect us to make money and pay the damn light bill with zero income for that long?”

On the latest episode of Queen City Nerve’s Nooze Hounds podcast, DeLoach told us that to-go beer sales and donations have kept her business afloat when there are not many other options for her to consider as a private bar owner.

Jamie Starks, owner of Tommy’s Pub, posted on Facebook the same day stating that CMPD ABC officers told him he had to shut down completely and cease the sale of to-go beers that had helped him survive along with merchandise sales and other fundraisers. Like Briggs, Starks reached out to the special agent overseeing the Harrisburg district for ALE, who reassured him that to-go beer and wine sales were completely fine. “This is not the normal thing to tell a business and it is very confusing,” the agent wrote to Starks in an email.

In a Facebook post from Aug. 23, Starks echoed Briggs’ sentiments by pointing out the hypocrisy in how the governor’s orders were being enforced. “This is arguably a demographic issue, based on class/wealth. Hell, some have argued ageism and racism, too. I don’t disagree,” he wrote. “Just look at which drinking establishments and businesses are allowed to be open (and their location) vs. what is closed to working class and lower-income individuals and families?”

State and Local Officials Share Insight 

Queen City Nerve reached out to CMPD about the alcohol enforcement issue, and the department sent a statement reading, “Attorneys with the State ABC Commission have advised the CMPD that private bars are restricted from onsite alcohol sales and onsite consumption under the Governor’s Order.”

Erin Bean, special agent and spokesperson for the North Carolina Department of Public Safety’s Alcohol Law Enforcement (ALE) division, told us that, despite what CMPD’s ABC officers have been telling business owners, off-premise sales such as beer and wine to go is still allowed under the governor’s orders.

“While on-premise consumption has been restricted, off-premise sales of beer and/or wine have been permitted throughout the Governor’s Executive Orders,” Bean wrote in an email. “A business holding an on-premise (beer or wine) permit allows the retail sale of beer/wine for consumption on the premises and the retail sale of beer/wine to-go in the manufacturers original sealed container for off-premise consumption (as long as the purchaser has a valid ID, is over 21 years old, and is not intoxicated).”

At a press conference on Aug. 21, CMPD Deputy Chief Jeff Estes said the department is working “to ensure we have a good message for all of our business owners and that we’re saying the same thing.”

The rules as they stand now will remain in place until at least Sept. 11, when Cooper’s latest Phase 2 extension is set to expire. He’s expected to make an announcement earlier that week declaring any new changes to the orders.

Future Plans for Private Bar Owners Plagued With Uncertainty 

As for private bar owners like Briggs and Starks, they plan to move forward under the guidance of state officials who have assured them that the to-go sales they’ve been making to scrounge up even a bit of income are legal.

1501 South Mint in Wilmore
1501 South Mint (Photo by Rori Production) 

Briggs closed her business on Aug. 21 to make a plan for how to move forward “for the rest of however many weeks or months we’ll be operating under this order,” but would have to once again let go many of the employees she brought back under the impression that the sales from her permanent food truck meant she could operate like many other restaurants and bars serving food under Phase 2. 

“It’s just unfortunate because it puts us in a really interesting situation when you look at our staff,” she said. “When you look at the lack of unemployment, it’s just unfortunate for all these private bars who have been operating, who hired new staff, to now go back and have to tell their staff, ‘Oh, by the way, I’m going to have let you go temporarily, because we can’t even operate in our full capacity. It’s unfortunate.”

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