Two industry associations with members that rely on bars to support their businesses are criticizing Marion County’s restrictive public health rules for establishments that serve alcohol.
The Indiana Amusement Operators Association and the Indiana License Beverage Association, in a statement issued late Thursday, said bars and taverns in the county are finding it almost impossible to survive due to pandemic restrictions.
Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett and the Marion County Public Health Department on Thursday morning announced they would allow bars and restaurants to reopen, but only under tough restrictions.
Starting Tuesday, Marion County bars that do not serve food that are age-restricted (21 and over) will be allowed to reopen at 25% capacity. Those establishments were closed July 24 after the county saw a surge in COVID-19 cases.
The new directive lets bars operate at 50% capacity in outdoor seating areas, but it prohibits bar-top service, dancing and live entertainment. Customers must be seated at tables containing no more than six patrons and are required to wear masks when walking around.
Bars and nightclubs also have to close at midnight.
The rules are more restrictive than those found in the state’s pandemic recovery plan, which allows traditional bars to operate at 50% capacity and doesn’t prevent bar-top service. State guidelines say bars must adhere to social distancing guidelines but they don’t specifically address dancing or live entertainment.
The Indiana License Beverage Association said Marion County’s rules are too restrictive and are putting bars out of business.
“These locally-owned business in the hospitality industry operate on incredibly slim margins, and typically don’t have reserves that allow them to survive without revenue for months on end,” ILBA President Brad Klopfenstein said in written remarks. “It has become virtually impossible to plan staffing, or retain staff, without knowing when they may be allowed to reopen at a reasonable capacity. We are very close to seeing the end of the neighborhood bar as we know it, and most will not return.”
Industry advocates also criticized the discrepancy between the rules governing traditional bars and restaurants that serve alcohol. Establishments that offered food service before March 1 and allow patrons under 21 are permitted to operate at 50% capacity. Additionally, those businesses were not forced to close July 24 like traditional bars.
The associations said the “arbitrary deadline of March 1” unfairly prevents traditional taverns from having the ability to add food service to improve their chances at survival.
“While the mantra from our elected officials has been that businesses and residents all need to evolve and adapt, these businesses are frozen in time without any recourse to change their business model,” the associations said in their statement. “With no end in sight for these restrictions, most of these independent small businesses will close within a few months.”
The Indiana Amusement Operators Association said the restrictions on bars have repercussion for other industries and vendors.
“Local bars and taverns also support industries like the coin-operated amusement industry, which is hurting as well due to restrictions on using pool tables, dart machines and video games” said a statement from Andy Shaffer of Shaffer Amusement, a member of the IAOA.
The associations said they were calling on local officials to review pandemic guidelines in consultation with business owners to find a better solution.
“We are just looking for an opportunity to make it through this pandemic intact,” Klopfenstein said. “To do that, we need common sense guidelines that support public health, but allow us to be open for business.”
In response to the associations’ complaints, the mayor’s office said it was relying on input from public health officials to establish business restrictions.
“The ongoing global pandemic has created unprecedented financial hardship for businesses small and large, and we continue to urge Congress to act to provide additional local coronavirus relief funding even as we have worked with the City-County Council to appropriate $37 million in loan and grant capacity in Marion County,” spokesman Mark Bode said in an email. “That being said, the health and safety of our residents is a matter of life and death, and the city continues to support the Marion County Public Health Department and Dr. Virginia Caine as they work with state and federal experts to update our public health orders in response to the latest data and epidemiology.”
Caine has said that bars and nightclubs need more restrictions because they attract large groups of young people who closely mingle. Virus transmission has been shown to increase when groups congregate indoors, which is why positivity rates have been escalating among young adults.