COVID-19 still poses a threat and lessening restrictions could have negative consequences, but some businesses are not financially able to close. (Photo Credit: charmedlightph via Adobe Stock)

North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper’s recently enacted (Feb. 26) Executive Order 195 (EO195), which allows restaurants and bars to remain open and serve alcohol until 11 p.m. The order still requires face coverings in all public indoor settings and limits indoor capacity for bars, restaurants and other businesses to 30 percent.

Restaurants have offered indoor dining opportunities for several months, but with continued limited seating capacity. EO195 allows bars to now increase their indoor areas. Like dining establishments, the number of customers allowed inside is still far less than pre-COVID-19.

While the order will help financially struggling businesses, the question arises: Will it put their clientele in jeopardy when owners and managers disregard guidelines and allow markedly increased attendance at popular queer watering holes?

The LGBTQ community in North Carolina is substantial, however, designated safe spaces for LGBTQ individuals are sparse. The Bar at 316 is one such safe space. This bar and club has been a staple of the queer Charlotte scene for over two decades. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2020 State of Emergency declaration, 316 nearly ended up in bankruptcy and out of business. 

The bar is just one of many local businesses that have suffered as a result of the pandemic. After keeping their doors locked for upwards of six months, the decision was made to reopen.

Since that time, however, many Charlotteans and members of the local police department have confirmed the business has not maintained a safe environment. Dating back to January 2021, The Bar at 316 has received at least three citations for not adhering to the executive orders.

While some employees of The Bar at 316 spoke out, claiming the business was both a restaurant and bar, a perusal of the internet shows no dining-in or take-out options and no mention of a menu on their specific site or anywhere else online. It is important to note, however, references to brunch can be found. Bar 316 owner Jeff Edwards was contacted, but did not respond to questions.

Considering the consequences, one asks, why would a business risk these citations? 

The answer may be in the repercussions themselves. 

According to the Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department (CMPD), common consequences for those not adhering to the business mandates are fines up to $1000, being temporarily shut down and being permanently shut down. The threat of being indefinitely put out of business may have an impact on entrepreneurs, but that threat has yet to be enacted by the CMPD. 

In fact, most bars and clubs have been receiving citations as low as $100 per infraction. The amount of revenue accrued by remaining open for longer hours with a large clientele far outweighs the price of such a citation. Although restaurants have had a few run-ins with the CMPD, it is primarily smaller spaces that have had such difficulty upholding the COVID-19 Business Mandates. 

Clubs and bars, particularly those that are the size of The Bar at 316, are significantly smaller than restaurants. Restaurants must maintain socially distant service, ensuring that each table available for dine-in to be a minimum of six feet apart. The restaurants that contain bars have been required to prohibit seating within the bar area, but were able to offer alcoholic beverages at the tables.

The guidelines for delivering these drinks have also been extremely stringent. Only one drink may be purchased per customer, meaning that each member of the party must be present to purchase an alcoholic beverage even if they are ordering to-go. The bar or restaurant must also keep a detailed list of all alcoholic beverages being delivered (including the names, addresses and telephone number of the purchaser and the deliverer’s delivery permit number). These restrictions have also put a damper on the atmosphere of clubs and bars. 

The Bar at 316 was closed for more than six months because of COVID-19 and, once it became clear that they were on the brink of bankruptcy, they reopened, despite having the ability to social distance. The typical hours for The Bar at 316 are 6:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m., which does not correspond with the executive order that prohibits liquor sales past 11:00 p.m.

The Bar at 316 was once a large two-story home. There is a covered outdoor seating, which is not much more spacious than a typical residential backyard. While it does offer a comfortable environment that attracts customers, the increasing clientele of the club/bar continues to be discouraged by the current COVID-19 safety guidelines.

Most recent reports show that The Bar at 316 was shut down again on Feb. 19.

This begs the question: Are these restrictions something that only truly affects small businesses? What about groups that are already unwilling to abide by state regulations?

Not unlike the tight spaces, alcoholic beverages and late hours of clubs or bars, fish tables (aquatic video-themed gaming and gambling establishments) are currently running rampant in Charlotte. The law surrounding fish tables are murky at best.

State regulations maintain that games of luck are considered subcategories of illegal gambling. However, the fish table arcade games have yet to be scrutinized by any North Carolina court of law. During COVID-19, there have been minimal reports of fish tables being penalized at the same rate as bars or clubs.

For many of these small businesses, the citations will not deter them from re-opening their establishments.

Is this blasé attitude harmful towards patrons or does it only seem a careless approach to those who are not struggling business owners? 

What should be the correct reaction from LGBTQ establishments in response to the COVID-19 business mandates? 

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