Editorial: Be consistent in application of restrictions

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 1, 2020

This year has been challenging for businesses of all types, especially businesses whose revenue has fallen off a cliff because of COVID-19 restrictions or lockdowns.

Riding high just several months ago, owners of businesses like the Fish Bowl are at a low point and pondering whether it might be the end of the line.

Set aside for a moment the nature of the business — a bar — and focus on the reality of the lives being affected. These are business owners and hourly workers who have waited with bated breath about whether restrictions would allow them to open their doors. It seems clear they’ve tried to comply and only been met with inconsistencies.

To try and keep their doors open, the Fish Bowl embraced a food truck that it had stationed on its back patio prior to the pandemic. The goal, says co-owner Chris Ostle, was to fit in under the definition of a restaurant. But the food truck didn’t cut it. So, the business spent thousands to renovate a closet and bathroom to become a kitchen. That worked for a while, but this month Alcohol Law Enforcement agents said the Fish Bowl needed to close its indoor operation, owners told reporter Ben Stansell in a story published Sunday (“Near breaking point”).

The Fish Bowl can serve people outdoors, but the capacity limits are so small that it’s somewhere between difficult and impossible for Ostle to imagine a way to keep things going as is. Meanwhile, there are other businesses that serve alcohol and food that have not been affected to the same degree. It’s confusing that the Fish Bowl was allowed to have customers indoors from July to November and now must shift its plans. With changes only to mask-wearing rules and gathering limits, the state has been in phase three for several weeks.

If there’s an easily explainable reason for the change, state officials have some explaining to do. They must also strive for consistency in application of the law. The governor and those charged with implementing his executive orders should ask themselves what makes a place like the Fish Bowl more dangerous for COVID-19 spread than sit-down restaurants, particularly those where alcohol is a significant part of the business model. That’s not a knock against anyone in particular, but it is worth wondering how someone is more likely to spread COVID-19 in a sparsely populated bar that’s trying to do the right thing than a sit-down restaurant where food sales are a greater percentage of the revenue.

Legislators, meanwhile, need to consider whether they’ve done enough to provide assistance to businesses that are struggling because of state restrictions. Millions in CARES Act funding sits unspent in North Carolina because of disagreements about whether broadband expansion is an OK expenditure. Broadband expansion is much-needed in rural areas of the state, but it doesn’t help to quibble over internet when some people just need a paycheck for bills, food and medicine.

For some, the Fish Bowl won’t get any sympathy because it has historically been a bar and, as Ostle said, “always had the big flashing lights and bullseye on our back.” But the failure of the Fish Bowl means another vacant space downtown. And there are already too many of those.

The Fish Bowl is not drawing large crowds that are likely to spread COVID-19 any more than interactions people might have during their daily lives. If that changes and the business isn’t following precautions like requiring patrons to wear a mask, enforcing capacity limits and conducting regular cleaning, it’s fair to bring harsh punishment. If the state must move backward because of a worsening outbreak, that’s understandable, too. At the moment, however, it’s apparent that the state could do a better job of equally evaluating coronavirus risks.