Why Some Bar Owners Are Suing Their Governors Over Mandatory Closures

Multiple lawsuits in Texas and Florida take issue with the consistency of those state's restrictions on bar operations due to coronavirus, while restaurants are still allowed to offer services.

In late June, Texas Governor Greg Abbott said that if he had one pandemic-related do-over, he probably would've kept the state's bars closed a little longer. "If I could go back and redo anything, it probably would have been to slow down the opening of bars, now seeing in the aftermath of how quickly the coronavirus spread in the bar setting," he told KVIA. "[Patrons] go to bars to get close and to drink and to socialize, and that's the kind of thing that stokes the spread of the coronavirus."

That same day, Abbott signed an emergency order that required all bars to close again, and cut the maximum restaurant capacity to 50 percent. “At this time, it is clear that the rise in cases is largely driven by certain types of activities, including Texans congregating in bars," he said in a statement. "The actions in this executive order are essential to our mission to swiftly contain this virus and protect public health."

Chairs sit stacked inside a closed bar in Austin, Texas, June 26, 2020. SERGIO FLORES / Contributor/Getty Images

Three days later, a group of two dozen bar owners and private citizens filed a lawsuit in Travis County (which includes the state capital, Austin), arguing that Abbott's order was unconstitutional. "Governor Abbott continues to act like a king, refusing to convene the Legislature to address his unconstitutional orders,” attorney Jared Woodfill told the Austin American-Statesman. “Abbott is unilaterally destroying our economy and trampling our constitutional rights.”

The lawsuit's lead plaintiff, Tee Allen Parker, said that she didn't "think it was right" that her Machine Shed Bar & Grill had to close. "“The reason I'm speaking up is I don't like that he can't be consistent," she said of Abbott. "You lead by example. Everything he’s said he’s walked back. And I’m disappointed in him because I was a big fan of his.” (The plaintiffs seem to ignore the fact that Abbott 'walked back' the state's reopening plans after the number of positive cases of coronavirus started a still-drastic daily increase.)

Roughly 48 hours later, a second group of bar owners who are all members of the Texas Bar and Nightclub Alliance filed a $10 million federal lawsuit against Abbott, seeking financial damages and asking the court to both overturn Abbott's existing emergency order and officially prohibit him from signing off on similar orders in the future. "We are looking forward to having the governor have to explain what the rational thought process was," Michael Klein, the president of the Texas Bar & Nightclub Alliance told the San Antonio Business Journal.

Last week, a third group of bar owners (from Dallas this time) filed their own $1 million lawsuit against Abbott.

After all of that, some newly named plaintiffs in Florida have started doing the exact same thing. On July 3, the owners of two bars in Volusia filed suit against Governor Ron DeSantis and Halsey Beshears, the state's Secretary of the Department of Business and Professional Regulation (DBPR), accusing them of violating the business owners' civil liberties by ordering their bars to remain closed. And last week a "group of the most popular bars in Orlando"—at least according to their attorney—filed their own lawsuit against Beshears and DeSantis.

"My clients have complied with all safety mandates and have exceeded the guidelines set forth by the government and CDC. Instead of penalizing violators of the guidelines, Governor DeSantis has thrown the baby out with the bathwater and prevented law abiding citizens from making a living," attorney John Dill said in his own press release.

"My clients are in favor of reducing the spread of COVID-19, but can't understand why serving a certain amount of food is the deciding factor on who can stay open and who cannot. We want the court to stop this governmental overreach which is harming many citizens and not stemming the tide of COVID-19 cases in any way." (Bars were closed and "on-premise alcohol consumption" was halted for a second time in June; at the beginning of July, bars that make at least 50 percent of their sales on food were allowed to reopen, while those that do not serve food must remain closed.)

As of this writing, the number of positive cases of coronavirus is increasing by an average of 9,162 per day in Texas, and by an average of 10,855 cases per day in Florida. On Sunday, Florida reported its highest-ever single-day increase in positive cases, and a day later, it set a grim new record for the number of deaths reported.

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