Crystal and Rob Waldron have spent more than 18 years making Club 519 a popular fixture in the Greenville, North Carolina bar scene, especially among locals who like to stop in after a long day at work.
Under the state’s COVID-related orders however, Club 519 was shuttered from March 2020 until February 2021. That shutdown threatened to cost the Waldrons their pride and joy and their primary source of income.
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper unilaterally declared a state of emergency that only he is authorized to end. The governor issued a hodgepodge of arbitrary directives, including an executive order that allowed nearly every establishment that sells alcoholic beverages to remain open but that forces most private bars to remain closed. (In North Carolina, establishments that serve alcohol but not food are classified as “private bars.”)
At that time, private bars could only serve outdoors and only at 30 percent capacity. At the same time, bars in hotels and restaurants, as well as bottle shops, breweries, cideries, distilleries, meaderies, and wineries, were all allowed to operate at 50 percent capacity—indoors and outdoors.
Like many private bars in North Carolina, Club 519 has no outdoor space and thus could not open at all, even if it maintains the same indoor health and safety protocols as similar establishments that were permitted to reopen. And the governor’s disparate treatment of private bars and other businesses seemed without any reason apart from the greater lobbying power of the other businesses.
In his exercise of essentially one-man rule, the governor not only assumed legislative power, he also prevented the legislature from responding to the COVID crisis. Gov. Cooper vetoed bills to change his emergency edicts and rebuffed efforts to limit his emergency power by claiming that there’s no limit to the duration of the state of emergency.
Although there is a role for the state to regulate for public health, government must act constitutionally. The legislature should be making the rules, and similar businesses should be treated similarly.
Represented by PLF free of charge, the Waldrons fought back in state court, first challenging the governor’s arbitrary, unconstitutional treatment of bars and later, after bars were allowed to reopen less than a week after Club 519’s day in court, the state’s Emergency Management Act for separation of powers violations.
Before the case was argued, the governor signed into law a number of amendments that align the act with the state constitution’s separation of powers to better protect economic liberty for the Waldrons and all entrepreneurs throughout the Tarheel State.