Canby bar loses liquor license for defying COVID closure
The Route 99 Roadhouse in Canby is closed for what owners say will be a few weeks after the Oregon Liquor Control Commission suspended their liquor license for allowing people to eat and drink inside the building without masks.
OLCC had received complaints in January that the restaurant was allowing groups of customers to gather and consume food and alcohol inside the building, according to a news release from the OLCC. Restaurants in extreme-risk counties, which at the time included Clackamas County, are only allowed to welcome customers for takeout and outdoor dining.
Owner Rachelle George said in a Facebook video that during the first week of January, the Route 99 Roadhouse participated in the "Open Oregon" movement, which saw various businesses — especially restaurants — open their doors beginning Jan. 1 in defiance of Gov. Kate Brown's orders and Oregon Health Authority reopening guidance. Instead of operating under extreme-risk guidance, they operated under the state's high-risk guidance.
George said prior to that week, the business had been struggling financially under the state's COVID-19 restrictions.
"Bills are real. Payroll is real," George said. "The cost of food and alcohol is real. We didn't want to bump our prices up $2 a beer to try to make ends meet."
Instead, they opened their doors.
"So, we brought everybody inside. We wore masks. I even wore a mask," George said. "You guys know I hate masks. I wore a mask. I had a chin mask and everything. And we had everyone at tables and socially distanced six feet apart — all of the rules."
That's when OLCC gave Route 99 a warning and educated licensees George and Tyson Bafford on how to bring their business into compliance. The owners closed the restaurant for a week and came up with the idea of running the business as a "clubhouse" for members only.
"The mandate specifically states that (when) bars and restaurants open to the public, you have to wear a mask," George said. "Guess what? We're not open to the public. Let's do members only. … So, only our people that want to come in here are going to come in here. And if you don't want to wear a mask, you don't have to."
George said they had someone at the door explaining what was happening and that people who did not want to participate had the chance to safely leave. She also said her employees were not required to report to work.
Word spread, and during the last weekend in January, the restaurant was busy.
"We knew that we couldn't really control it and it was becoming a beast," George said. "And we knew we were going to have to turn it back. We knew this wasn't going to work."
And it did not. An OLCC compliance staff member arrived for an in-person inspection and noticed the parking lot was close to full. They could see customers inside the building socializing without masks. According to the OLCC, upon entering the dining area, the staffer saw many people consuming food and drinks in the bar. All customers and employees were without masks.
So, on Feb. 2, the OLCC suspended the restaurant's liquor license so that it is not allowed to sell any alcoholic beverages. The length of the suspension depends on how long it takes to settle the case, according to OLCC spokesperson Bryant Haley. The license, however, is not revoked.
"We're OK with that because we knew the risk when we did this," George said. "We weren't trying to say 'F you' to the government or 'F you' to OLCC; we just tried to take advantage of a gray area. … We just tried to figure out a loophole that maybe would work for us, but it didn't. … So, we'll take the punishment. And that's pretty much the end of the story with that. The suspension sucks, but we deserved it. We'll take it."
George and Bafford closed the doors and are reportedly working with the OLCC. They are taking the time to complete minor renovations on the building.
The OLCC is continuing its investigation as George and Bafford potentially face additional charges for liquor rule violations.
But George made it clear she has no hostility toward the OLCC.
"Our frustration is definitely the governor's mandates," George said. "With that being said, we feel like we have a big bullseye on our backs being in the bar and restaurant industry. We feel like there's hand selection of who gets to succeed and who doesn't."
George contends that it is not restaurants that are contributing to the spread of COVID-19.
Now, as the Route 99 Roadhouse sits closed, Clackamas County has moved down to the high-risk category, allowing restaurants to welcome up to 50 guests, or 25% of capacity, for indoor dining and drinking.
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