Lawrence bar owner sues Douglas County health official over COVID-19 restrictions

A Lawrence bar is suing a local health official over an emergency health order that limits bar hours in an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

According to the Oct. 1 order issued by a Douglas County, Kansas health official, restaurants and bars with liquor licenses are required to stop serving alcohol by 11 p.m. and have to shut their doors to in-person clientele by midnight.

Rita “Peach” Madl, the owner of The Sandbar, a popular bar in Lawrence, home to the University of Kansas, filed a lawsuit Friday against Douglas County’s Local Health Officer Thomas Marcellino, who issued the order.

The Kansas Justice Institute, which helped file the lawsuit, issued a news release Monday claiming the county order “disregards Constitutional rights such as due process and equal protection.”

“We all want the same thing, healthy and happy customers, but if we aren’t permitted to have normal hours soon, we might not ever get the chance to be a part of team Lawrence again,” Madl said in a statement.

The latest order does not limit the occupancy of the businesses, though it does limit the number of people at a table to 10. Businesses with liquor licenses can continue carrying-out and delivering food beyond midnight. However, the order does not require restaurants without liquor licenses to close to in-person customers at midnight as it does the establishments which serve alcohol.

This most recent order replaced a previous one which required establishments to stop selling alcohol at 9 p.m. and to close their doors to in-person service by 10 p.m.

“There is no constitutionally sufficient rationale for imposing the restaurant and bar curfew regime,” the federal suit reads, accusing the health officials of violating procedural due process, substantive due process and equal protection.

Members of the justice institute argue in the statement that Douglas County bar and restaurant owners are being denied their civil liberties, “including the right to earn a living and to operate a commercial enterprise, without due process of law.”

Businesses that violate the health order could be closed down, according to the suit. Business owners in violation could be fined up to $2,500 and face up to a year in jail.

“Business owners should be afforded a due process hearing when an unelected, politically unaccountable health officer issues an order impacting their business,” Kansas Justice Institute Litigation Director Sam MacRoberts said in a statement. “It’s a matter of fairness. There’s no mechanism to challenge the restaurant and bar curfew order, and that should change.”

The lawsuit reads that despite The Sandbar’s “free-spirited nature,” the business has taken serious protocols to protect its staff and customers from potential exposure to COVID-19. It also argues that the health order has caused “significant economic injury” to the bar and its owner.

Madl in the suit is asking that the court free her business from the current curfew in place.

A spokesperson for Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.

According to county health department data, 2,573 Douglas County residents have been diagnosed with COVID-19 since the onset of the pandemic. The county’s test positivity rate has been continuously decreasing over the last month from 9.9% to 5.4%, according to county heath data.

As of Wednesday, 1,031 members of the University of Kansas had tested positive for the coronavirus, according to the university.

Read more here: