Staring Down a Permanent Last Call, Arizona Bars Mount a Protest at the Capitol

Lauren Cusimano
The Not Our Last Call Rally rally at the Arizona State Capitol on August 20.
To understand why roughly 300 people descended upon the Arizona State Capitol for a protest yesterday afternoon, you must first briefly grapple with the distinctions between a few types of Arizona liquor licenses.

A series 6 license is primarily for a bar. It allows a business to sell beer, wine, and spirits.

A series 7 license is similar, but only allows businesses to sell beer and wine (no spirits).

A series 12 license is for restaurants. It allows a business to sell beer, wine, and spirits as long as 40 percent of its gross revenue is from food sales.

On June 29, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey issued an executive order shutting down establishments that carry series 6 and series 7 licenses, due to COVID-19. Series 12 establishments were allowed to remain open, albeit with some health and safety restrictions.

click to enlarge Cruisin’ 7th Show Bar & Lounge. - LAUREN CUSIMANO
Cruisin’ 7th Show Bar & Lounge.
Lauren Cusimano
In other words, plain old bars were ordered closed. But restaurants with a bar inside them — as well as hotel bars and casino bars — are still open.

"I wouldn't mind being closed, if it was truly making a difference," says Mike McGarry, owner of the Phoenix bar Cruisin’ 7th. "It's not. Most of my customers are just drinking at places like Zipps."

As the pandemic has dragged on, the bar business in Arizona has only grown more precarious. Char’s Has the Blues is gone. So is Sidebar. Many others are fighting for their lives.

Ducey said recently that bars will only be allowed to reopen once positive COVID-19 tests in the county come down to a rate of three percent — and even then, bars can only serve at 50 percent capacity. Nobody has any idea how long it will take to arrive at three percent, or how many bars will have permanently closed by then.

It worries me. I worry about what the city will look like after this. I worry about my favorite places closing.

But I’m just a patron. Think of all the bar owners, bartenders, bar backs, door people, wait staff, distributors, and countless others worried about their jobs, businesses, future, and the entire industry.

Hence yesterday’s protest at the Capitol.

Dubbed the Not Our Last Call Rally, it started at 1:30 p.m. and lasted until about 3 p.m., when the heat became unbearable. Many in the crowd wore green, as was planned; others wore shirts advertising their places of business or favorite bar. Masks were abundant, as was water.

Based on the gear in the crowd, employees and supporters of Roadrunner Lounge in south Scottsdale, Gypsy's Roadhouse in east Phoenix, and Connolly's in the north Valley were strongly represented. Ditto Swizzle Inn and Q & Brew. The folks from Hideaway and Buffalo Chip Saloon showed up with tractors; flags bearing their bar logos wafted in the hot breeze.

click to enlarge LAUREN CUSIMANO
Lauren Cusimano
There were signs: "You can't Tanqueray our rights.” "We are poor, let us pour."

There were chants: "Open one, open all." Somebody kept blasting Twisted Sister's "We're Not Gonna Take It" on a loop over speakers. The energy was electric.

A bartender from Gypsy's told New Times she’s been out of work for five months and that she only recently received unemployment — $117 a week. She says she can't support herself and her child on that. "I'd rather work and they can keep their unemployment," she said.

The owners of Three Canyon Beer and Wine Garden, in Tucson, drove in for the event. As owners, they don’t qualify for unemployment. Three Canyon has a series 7 license, but it also serves food — burgers and brats — and has seating for 300 people outside according to owner Susan Sheldon.

"We're at 40 percent food,” she said, “and they still won't allow us to open up."

Steven Sheldon said they have applied for a series 12 license, but it will take up to three months before approval.

"It cost me $14,000 for my series 7 license, and right now it's worth zero," he said.

"We're just at their mercy," Susan added.

The rally was organized as a Facebook event by Courtney Kedzierski and Jamie Bates. Other organizers included Kelli Holmes, Steve Atwood, Melissa Baluzzo, and Summer Marcus.

Holmes has been a bartender for 14 years. She was part of a group from several area bars, including Dave's On Northern, Other Room in Glendale, and Dunes Cocktail Lounge — where she would normally be bartending.

"Drinkers belong in bars,” she said. “Restaurants want us to take our people back. They're 86ing people out of Olive Garden."

Jamie Bates is a bartender and manager at Bull Shooters in north-central Phoenix. - NEW TIMES ARCHIVES
Jamie Bates is a bartender and manager at Bull Shooters in north-central Phoenix.
New Times Archives
Bates is a bartender and manager at Bull Shooters, a pool hall and bar in north-central Phoenix her family has owned for more than 11 years. Like Three Canyon, Bull Shooters serves food, but since it carries a series 6 license, it is required to stay closed. The bar employs more than 25 people.

Bates said the idea for the rally came about when she and her family started connecting with other bar owners through Facebook groups like AZ Bartenders Back to Work. “We realized that we are dealing with the same, unfair restrictions and decided we needed to come together to fight for our businesses and employees,” she said.

“We are hoping to have our voices heard and that our impossible benchmarks be reconsidered,” she continued. “The restrictions put on class 6 and 7 licenses are unjust while class 12 licensed establishments can remain open with the privileges that 6 and 7 licenses pay for.”

Bates is referring there to the fact that a series 6 license costs significantly more than a series 12. Series 6 licenses are priced at fair market value and based on demand; there is a county limit on how many are given out per year. Last year, the average price for a series 6 license in Maricopa County was $94,650, according to Jeffery Trillo, Assistant Director of the Licensing and Administration Division of the Arizona Department of Liquor Licenses and Control.

There is no limit to how many series 12s may be allotted. Activating a series 12 license costs a flat $2,000 statewide (though it requires varying renewal fees and additional costs).

In exchange for the higher cost, holders of series 6 and 7 licenses don’t have to worry about selling food (although they can), and also may offer “off-sales” — meaning takeaway alcohol.

But as Bates points out, "We pay extra for the ability to sell packaged alcohol to-go, yet the governor gave that ability to 12s when he shut everything down, and he is still allowing them to sell to-go alcohol."

click to enlarge LAUREN CUSIMANO
Lauren Cusimano
As the rally made clear, these are not the complaints of just a handful of bar owners.

Thunderbird Lounge owner Jeremiah Gratza, who recently spoke out about various unfair aspects of Ducey’s order, has also created the Arizona Independent Bar Organization Facebook group. It’s a communal space for bar people (owners, managers, bartenders, and patrons).

As of the time of this writing, there are nearly 700 members, from all across the state. Memes are exchanged (I especially love the cheersing Al Bundy and Jefferson D'Arcy: “I’m no governor, but I was shutting down bars long before coronavirus”), as are articles and other information. People ask questions and seek general support from others facing the same problems.

The group is also where a petition to reopen 6 and 7 series bars was spread, among other places.

That petition, which outlines bar owners' various concerns, currently has nearly 10,000 signatures. It requests that the Arizona Supreme Court immediately overturn Ducey’s orders that closed series 6 and 7 businesses.

Representing the more than 100 bar owners who signed the petition is Ilan Wurman, a law professor at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University. Wurman said in a statement that the distinctions between licenses that Ducey made in his order have nothing to do with public health.

“All of my clients were actively complying with public health measures,” Wurman said. “Many have enormous outdoor spaces. There’s simply no connection between their license series and their ability to implement public health measures.”

He added: “Singling out series 6 and 7 licensees was lazy at best. At worst, doing so was a corrupt favor to Governor Ducey’s friends in the powerful restaurant industry.”

click to enlarge More than 300 people were in attendance at the Not Our Last Call Rally. - LAUREN CUSIMANO
More than 300 people were in attendance at the Not Our Last Call Rally.
Lauren Cusimano
What’s a closed-down bar to do?

As of yesterday morning, the Arizona Small Business Rent and Mortgage Relief Grant — a partnership between the governor’s office and the Local First Arizona Foundation — is taking applications. Bars affected by Executive Order 2020-43 may apply for up to $25,000 in relief funds.

But that grant did not slow down this gathering.

For patrons and others looking for more information, check out the hashtags #notourlastcall and #givebarsafairshot. You can also sign the petition. And you can still order takeaway from bars.