Kevin Slater doesn’t want his private club, the Atomic Fern, or any bar, to be allowed to reopen right now. But he’s pretty mad that neither the state, nor the city of Durham, has done much to offer relief to small businesses that have been forced to close, and stay closed, for months on end.
That’s why Slater is suing both the State of North Carolina and Durham city government for damages in excess of $25,000.
With a superior court complaint filed yesterday in Durham County, Slater says he hopes to draw attention to the fact that “businesses all over the place have been basically ignored.”
Slater’s six-year-old Parrish Street bar closed on March 16, the day before Governor Roy Cooper issued an executive order closing bars and restaurants due to the growing COVID crisis. Restaurants, of course, have since been able to reopen at 30 percent capacity. Bars—technically considered private clubs if they don’t sell food–were allowed to reopen with social distancing if they have outdoor seating, and any businesses can open to sell to-go cocktails, albeit with limitations.
None of this has helped Slater, he says. He still has to pay rent, and even though there’s currently a moratorium on evictions—one that came too late for the Atomic Fern, as its landlord changed the locks earlier this month—Slater says he won’t be able to afford the back-rent he’s accrued over the course of nearly a year, now estimated to cost him $20,000.
What’s really needed, Slater says, is a moratorium on rent and utilities.
“At the end of this, I will end up owing so much money,” Slater says. “The small amount of relief things that they have done have been not even close [to what we need]. They feel like pat answers to say, ‘Look, we’re doing a thing,’ but they’re really not doing anything.”
Slater’s lawsuit is different from the one that a group of bar and club owners filed in May challenging Cooper’s authority to shut down bars and restaurants in the first place. In that case, a judge ruled in favor of the Cooper administration, citing the governor’s executive authority to close down businesses in the name of protecting the public health.
While Slater concedes that his suit has a slim chance of success, he hopes it makes people—and governments—realize that small businesses and private clubs like his have been left stranded.
“We don’t qualify for Payroll Protection grants because we no longer have employees,” Slater says. “I’ve been denied a business loan from the Small Business Administration. The Atomic Fern is not looking for a payout. I am not looking for a payout. I am not asking to reopen. We just want the state and Durham governments to recognize that the efforts they are doing are not helpful.”
In a statement to the INDY, a spokesperson for the governor’s office says the administration is abiding by scientific data to keep people safe.
“The governor will continue to find ways to help people and businesses struggling due to the pandemic, and he plans to work with the General Assembly to identify avenues to provide additional relief.”
The INDY has reached out to the city of Durham for comment. We will update this story when they respond.
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