All week long, downtown Raleigh bar owner Zack Medford’s employees have been scrubbing the floors and painting the walls in preparation for phase 2 of the Governor Cooper’s reopening plan. They knew it would allow restaurants to open at limited capacity. Medford assumed the same rule would apply to bars. 

To a virus, is there really a difference between a restaurant that serves cocktails and a bar?  

The state seems to think so. On Wednesday, Cooper unveiled a more conservative reopening plan than initially anticipated, citing a recent statewide spike in coronavirus cases. Although restaurants will, beginning Friday at 5:00 p.m., be permitted to allow dine-in customers at 50 percent capacity, bars will remain closed. 

Bar owners say they were blindsided. 

On Wednesday, Medford, who owns Paddy O’Beers and co-owns Isaac Hunter’s Hospitality group, announced that he was creating an advocacy group, the North Carolina Bar, Brewery & Nightclub Association, to represent bars’ interests.

“Tonight’s announcement from Governor Roy Cooper was a surprise, to say the least,” he posted on Facebook Wednesday night. While I am extremely disappointed that trends in the Covid19 data have not stabilized enough to allow bars to reopen, we do understand the Governor’s decision. … 

“I am disappointed by the way this decision was communicated to those of us in the bar, brewery, and nightclub industries. Earlier this week the North Carolina Restaurant & Lodging Association announced a set of interim guidelines for bars and restaurants to reopen in phase 2 starting Friday at 5 pm. All signs pointed to us getting back in business. We alerted our staff, put in preliminary orders, and prepared to reopen. It was only once the Governor began to speak that we learned phase 2 does not apply unless you’re permitted as a restaurant.”

The Restaurant & Lodging Association emailed its members on Tuesday to tell them that phase 2 was a go.

“It’s clear bar owners were never consulted,” Medford says. “Because this information is coming as a complete surprise out of the blue for bar owners across the state. In [the new] group, we are trying to bring forward solutions and ways that we can come together to advocate for issues that are specific to bars and find solutions that can help us at least mitigate a loss of revenue over the next five weeks.”

Top Republicans have questioned Cooper’s rationale for differentiating between bars and restaurants. 

“Under [Cooper’s] order,” Senate leader Phil Berger tweeted, “it appears that the large outdoor seating area at a brewery is closed but the cramped indoor dining area of a restaurant is open. What is the strategy behind this?”

“There is no scientific or logical reason for closing brewery taprooms but allowing brewpubs to open. It’s a nonsensical distinction,” added General Assembly special counsel Brent Woodcox

Medford argues that Cooper should allow bars to reconfigure indoor seating to allow for social distancing while those with outdoor seating should be permitted to reopen at 50 percent capacity. The state should also ease restrictions on to-go cocktails—something Republicans in the General Assembly declined to do earlier this month.

Medford has also begun sussing out interest in a class-action lawsuit to seek a temporary restraining order against Cooper’s mandate. 

Breweries, meanwhile, have launched an effort to distinguish themselves from the pack. On Thursday, the North Carolina Craft Brewers Guild issued a press release that called for a “reopening clarification.”

“Our 328 breweries, taprooms, and brewpubs have served as leaders in this crisis, working to provide safe and responsible ways for the consuming public to enjoy locally crafted beer,” the Guild said. “As an industry, our breweries have invested millions in manufacturing and safety equipment. We do not believe our breweries, taprooms, or brewpubs meet Executive Order 141’s definition of ‘bars,’ and we are continuing to work with the Governor’s office to clarify this matter.”

The executive order defines bars as “establishments that are not eating establishments or restaurants as defined in N.C. Gen. Stat. 18B-1000(2) [“An establishment engaged in the business of regularly and customarily selling food, primarily to be eaten on the premises”] and 18B-1000(6) [“An establishment substantially engaged in the business of preparing and serving meals”], that have a permit to sell alcoholic beverages for onsite consumption under N.C. Gen. Stat.18B-1001, and that are principally engaged in the business of selling alcoholic beverages for onsite consumption.”

Medford says the restaurant industry isn’t the enemy. But since bars are facing their own restrictions, they need to find a clearer way forward. To the best of his knowledge, he adds, an advocacy group solely for bar, nightclub, and brewery owners hasn’t existed in the state before. He hopes that solidarity across a fragile industry will outlast the pandemic. 

“I think a massive number of these bars were barely hanging on with rent and their landlords for the past two months,” Medford says. “And just last night we learned it’s going to be about four months [since the pandemic began] before we reopen. That’s a real big difference. How do you pay rent for four months when you’re not making a dime?”

Contact deputy arts and culture editor Sarah Edwards at

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