PHOENIX — Bar owners from around the state came to the Capitol on Wednesday in hopes of getting some help in their bids to reopen.
But it remains unclear what, if anything even the top legislative leaders can do for them, at least in the short term, given that virtually all of the decisions about who can operate and under what conditions are being made by Gov. Doug Ducey and his advisers, and the legislature doesn’t meet again until January.
House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, said he and Senate President Karen Fann have met with the governor “occasionally” since Ducey declared a state of emergency in March. He described those encounters as “very cordial.”
Bowers, however, said there have been no real concessions to get the hundreds of businesses now closed reopened, or to allow those who can operate to have more customers in the door or operate the way they were before, with things like pool tables.
About the only thing Fann and Bowers have been able to secure is a $10 million grant fund allowing the owners of all closed businesses — this also includes gyms, fitness centers, splash parks and movie theaters — to get up to $25,000 to help pay rent or mortgages. And there is now a process to allow some shuttered businesses to reopen if they “attest” they will follow certain rules.
But Bowers said what’s really needed is for lawmakers to reassert their authority as a co-equal branch of government and exercise some oversight of what this governor and future governors do when they declare an emergency and start making unilateral determinations. One option, he said would be to require legislative review within a month after a gubernatorial declaration “rather than have one executive, overwhelmed by the whole thing, trying to make a decision on the fly.”
“We could really be a team,” Bower said. But currently, “we have no authority, we’re not executives.”
Much of what was aired fell in the category of what bar owners believe is the arbitrary nature of the decisions about what kinds of businesses are safe and which are not.
In essence, they believe they were the victims of Ducey’s decision in June to re-close bars after there was a spike in COVID-19 infections as well as highly publicized pictures of young adults packed into nightclubs, all without masks and with no social distancing.
Yet the current orders allows to reopen — albeit at 50 percent capacity — while bars in 13 of the state’s 15 counties where the risk of community spread is considered “substantial” must remain closed unless they get approval of their operations by the Arizona Department of Health Services. And that’s a process that has to be done one facility at a time.
In fact, as of late Tuesday, the most recent data available, some 600 shuttered businesses of all types had applied to reopen. That includes not just bars but also gyms and theaters.
But there have been only 38 approvals, including five bars.
Daniel Piacquadio of Harold’s Corral in Cave Creek, pointed out that a facility licensed as a restaurant can have four people sitting at a table, eating wings and drinking beer. But that is not an option for a facility licensed as a bar.
“I don’t see the difference,” he said.
“Everything is gone,” said Randy Gallagher who owns Gallagher’s Dining and Pub. He said any customers he used to have are gone, having fled to the open restaurants. He figures when he’s allowed to reopen — whenever that occurs — it will take him tens of thousands of dollars to get back to where he was before the pandemic.
That distinction between bars and restaurants is based on what could be considered an artificial line between the two.
Under Arizona law, a restaurant licensed to serve alcoholic beverages must have at least 40 percent of its sales from food. Anything below that requires licensing as a bar.
Yet there are some bars that actually meet that requirement but the owners have chosen for various reasons to be licensed as a bar. Some of that is financial: With state law limiting the number of bar licenses available in each county, that makes those licenses a commodity with financial value when an owner decides to sell.
But it’s even more complicated than that.
When Ducey initially closed both bars and restaurants for in-house service, the governor agreed to waive rules and laws to restaurants to offer not just food to go but also alcoholic beverages. So that allows someone to go to a restaurant and get beer, wine or even a margarita to go.
Meanwhile, the restaurants now can reopen at that limited capacity. But they retain the ability to continue to sell drinks out the front door, something that, until the pandemic, was forbidden.
Don Isaacson, lobbyist for the Arizona Licensed Beverage Association, said he understands the governor wanted to provide some financial relief to restaurants. “But it should not be at the expense of bars,” he said.
There are some places in the state set to reopen this week in Yavapai and Cochise counties. That is based on the findings of the health department that the risk of community spread has gone from “severe” to “moderate.” But even then, things won’t be the way they were before.
Matt Brassard who runs Matt’s Saloon on Whiskey Row in Prescott, said he will operate at reduced capacity. And forget about dancing or even wandering around and swapping stories as the rules will require that everyone remain seated.
“I’m grateful to be getting open,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong.”
But he questioned why such severe restrictions when gyms can open in areas designated as “moderate.”
“It’s a major change to our normal operations,” said Lee Miller, owner of JR’s Bar in Sierra Vista, also opening this week. For example, he said the billiards leagues that normally meet at his place can’t gather because these kind of games are forbidden.
“But it’s certainly better than being closed,” he said.
One other issue got the attention of lawmakers present: complaints that agents from the state Department of Liquor Licenses and Control were being arbitrary.
The rules do allow some places licensed as bars to reopen if they reconfigure their layout and agree to operate more like a restaurant, meaning no dancing and everyone seated. But several bar owners said their plans were rejected outright by liquor agents.