Dear Gov. Cooper,

I don’t envy your position. Keeping North Carolina safe during the pandemic is a difficult, complicated job. When I cast my vote for you three years ago, I voted for a person who was willing to make difficult decisions to guide our state forward.

I am the proud father of three boys. Noah, Nathan, and Jacob are my entire life. Last Christmas I gave the oldest, Noah, a Swiss Army knife inscribed with our family motto: “Adversity breeds tenacity.” I think about those words a lot these days.

Being a leader means being willing to make the tough choices, but it also means being willing to change your mind when the time comes. You and your team have served the state well, but the time has come to readdress North Carolina’s private bars. Did you know that bars have been allowed to reopen in nearly 40 states, depending on how you interpret “open?”  

But not in North Carolina.

Twelve years ago, my partners and I opened our first bar in Raleigh, Isaac Hunter’s Tavern. Despite all odds, we managed to find a way to succeed. Today, I own five private bars across North Carolina—and every single one of them has been shuttered since March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

When the novel coronavirus threatened our state, bar owners like me willingly closed down our life’s work because we trusted you wouldn’t ask us to make that sacrifice unless it was absolutely necessary. As our governor, we believed you would do everything in your power to help us survive.

That has not happened.

It’s easy to write us off as a bunch of irresponsible anti-maskers, but you’d be wrong. Private bar owners support the NCDHHS guidelines to enforce social distancing, ask our customers to wear masks when they aren’t seated, and adhere to the 11:00 p.m. alcohol sales curfew. We employ thousands of North Carolinians. We pay our taxes. We have families and raise children. We contribute to our communities. I myself have served as president of the Capital City Clauses charity and cofounded the Carolina Cavalry Disaster Relief organization in the wake of Hurricane Florence.

In May, I founded the N.C. Bar and Tavern Association. I wanted to give bar owners a voice after your executive order kept private bars shut but opened bars at restaurants and hotels, then a few days later expanded to open breweries and wineries. If it was safe for them to open, there’s a way to make it safe for us, too.

We bar owners are asking you to reconsider your wholesale ban on private bars. There are 1,063 of us. We make up just 15 percent of North Carolina’s bar industry, but we are the only ones closed. Virtually all of us are privately owned, not chains with deep pockets.

Those of us who were lucky enough to receive federal PPP loans already spent every penny paying our furloughed staff months ago. Many bars have tried modifying their business models by adding food to comply with your directive but were forced to close once more by the state’s alcohol law enforcement officials.

We can’t count on the federal government. It doesn’t look like Mitch McConnell and Congress are willing to offer any industry-specific relief, even to the businesses hardest hit. Thirty states have approved to-go cocktails as a tiny gesture to help their bars, but North Carolina’s legislature has rejected even that idea. The state offers some limited loan programs, but after 154 days of being closed, how could bar owners possibly take on more debt with no idea when they might reopen?

The term “private bar” is confusing. It conjures images of sweaty masses packing the dance floor of Studio 54. Believe it or not, most private bars across the state are closer to Cheers than they are to the Copacabana. Most bar owners are closer to Sam Malone than to Bugsy Siegel.

Like 1,062 other small-business owners across the state, every weekend I watch my customers walk past my closed doors and into the open bar across the street. The only thing that separates us from them is that we don’t sell food, distill liquor, or brew beer. That’s all. Heck, even N.C. strip clubs are allowed to operate right now if they have a food menu.

I’m begging you: We are out of money. We can’t pay rent anymore. Most of us are living off credit cards at this point. We are at the end of our ropes.

Please give us a fighting chance. Let us open with the same health protections and restrictions as the rest of the state’s food and drinking establishments: limited capacity, limited hours, table-service-only, masks-required. Close down any of us who violate those rules.

We aren’t asking for special treatment; we are asking for equal treatment. We are asking for the chance to survive. We are asking for the same chance to feed our families that you have given hotel bars, breweries, restaurants, and wineries.

 You can’t imagine how hard it is to watch all you’ve built up be destroyed—and your family’s future evaporate—while lines outside your competitors’ bars are filled with the patrons you used to serve. Even ABC stores have posted record sales while we face ruin.

“Adversity breeds tenacity.” As it has been for many people, 2020 has been the hardest year of my life, and it’s not even close to being over. Every day I wonder if I can live up to that same mantra I am trying to teach my sons. Every day my wife and I wonder how we will be able to provide them with a future after losing everything we spent their entire lives building.

Bars are the most heavily regulated industry in the state. We are the only business in North Carolina that has to buy its product from the government. We will be safe and responsible—we have to be. If a bar screws up, you can simply revoke their most valuable asset (their liquor license) and refuse to sell to them ever again. Please give us the chance to still be here when this pandemic comes to an end.


Zack T. Medford is the co-owner of Coglin’s Raleigh, Coglin’s Wilmington, Isaac Hunter’s Tavern, and Parliament.

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