By Kendall McGee | May 21, 2020 at 6:13 PM EDT – Updated May 21 at 6:41 PM
WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) – Governor Roy Cooper announced lifting restrictions for several businesses Friday, but bars and nightclubs didn’t make the cut to open with restaurants, pools and salons.
While the governor cautioned early on the proposed reopening phases were subject to change, many bar and nightclub owners were surprised to hear their businesses were not longer allowed to open for Memorial Weekend.
Ed Wolverton of Wilmington Downtown Inc says the bar owners he’s heard from are upset and don’t understand how rules are so different for businesses classified as restaurants and others classified as bars.
”I don’t see the difference in having a drink at a restaurant and having a drink in a bar… I don’t see the difference in risk at any level,” said Jimmy Gilleece, the owner of Jimmy’s in Wrightsville Beach.
As a destination that relies heavily on tourism, New Hanover County’s economy is supported by making sure visitors have plenty of opportunities to grab a drink. Wolverton emphasizes bars and nightclubs are important to the fabric of Wilmington’s downtown.
”Our nightlife is really important and has always been a big part of downtown. We’ve got just over 40 bars, pubs and breweries in our downtown, so that’s a pretty substantial number of businesses,” said Wolverton.
New Hanover County’s ABC Board agrees, as restaurants and bars that offer liquor by the drink contribute to $16 million a year in revenue to the ABC board. With so many businesses shut down in the midst of the pandemic, Zeke Partin of the New Hanover County ABC Board says its made a difference in their bottom line. Its too early to see the true impact of bars and nightclubs being unable to reopen, but the pandemic has taken its toll on their finances.
A 27 percent increase in retail sales at liquor stores has helped offset the loss, but a 99 percent decrease in liquor by the drink sales in restaurants and bars has brought their revenue down by 14 percent, as compared to this time last year.
Those losses will ultimately be felt by the city of Wilmington and the towns of Carolina Beach, Kure Beach and Wrightsville Beach, who directly receive funds from the county’s ABC sales. Last year, more than $5 million were distributed to local governments and the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office.
The timing of the announcement by Governor Cooper proved to make matters worse. Memorial weekend now joins a growing list of holidays bar owners have missed out on cashing in on.
“That’s really the busiest time, during this April through October period. The number of street festivals and events, there’s runs and races and art events. There’s all kinds of activities happening all the time and now we’re looking at the first part of this typically busy season that’s now off the books,” said Wolverton.
While many bars have received one of WDI’s 37 RE-3 grants, Wolverton explains they’re not alone; the group received more than 148 applications for help. As businesses trudge forward, WDI’s president hasn’t given up hope. Its only a matter of time until the state’s health indicators hold steady enough for all businesses to reopen.
“I’m hopeful we will make progress on those and that will allow us to take another step forward to reopening all of our businesses. In a safe way.”
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