PHOENIX — Bar owners from around the state came to the Capitol Wednesday in hopes of getting some help in their bids to reopen.
It remains unclear what, if anything, even the top legislative leaders can do for them, 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.’’
However, Bowers 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 did before, with features such as 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 — including gyms, fitness centers, splash parks and movie theaters — to get as much as $25,000 to help pay rent or mortgages. There is a process to allow some shuttered businesses to reopen if they “attest’’ they will follow certain rules.
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.
The current orders allows restaurants 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. That’s a process that has to be done one facility at a time.
As of late Tuesday, the most recent data available, about 600 shuttered businesses of all types had applied to reopen. That includes not just bars but gyms and theaters.
There have been only 38 approvals, including five bars.
Daniel Piacquadio of Harold’s Corral in Cave Creek said 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 estimates when he’s allowed to reopen it will take 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 less than that requires licensing as a bar.
Yet there are some bars that meet the 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, it makes those licenses a commodity with financial value when an owner decides to sell.
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.
Some establishment in the state are 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.’’ 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. 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 the 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 those kinds of activities 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 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.