Bar owners sue Shelby County, challenge order to close

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — A number of bar owners are taking Shelby County to court.

They’re suing the county in federal court and challenging the health department’s order to close bars.

Jeanette Comans, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, runs Blind Bear Speakeasy on Main Street.

“Every day we’re closed, we’re missing out on sales,” Comans said. “We’re spoiling food. My employees can’t go to work. I don’t like controversy. I don’t like court battles. I don’t want to sue anybody, but I don’t have any choice.”

Like other owners in the lawsuit, Comans serves food and drinks at her establishment, but the county lumps businesses like hers into the same category as stand-alone bars because 50% or more of her sales comes from alcohol. Plaintiffs in the suit say that shouldn’t determine if a business has to close.

“Most of our cocktails are the same amount as one entree, and when you have more than one drink with dinner, you’ve already out priced that person eating,” Comans said.

The lawsuit also points out bars on Beale Street are allowed to stay open because they’re located in a historic district. Plaintiffs complain they should be allowed to carefully follow social distancing rules and be able to stay open, too.

In a statement, Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris responded to the lawsuit.

He said, “Bar businesses are social settings, and social distance is one of our strategies to slow the spread of COVID-19. We have to be honest that the numbers are going in the wrong direction, and we have to layer additional protections.”

Health officials don’t know how long those protections will remain in effect, as bar owners like Max Lawhon try to protect their livelihoods. He runs Max’s Sports Bar on G.E. Patterson and is also a plaintiff in the suit.

“If we shut down for weeks, we can probably make it, but if we have to wait until there’s this vaccine … maybe it’s a year from now, we won’t, we won’t be coming back,” Lawhon said.

The lawsuit demands the county allow bars to reopen and pay bar owners compensation for the time they had to close. No dollar amounts were listed.

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