Independent restaurants ask Shelby County Health Department to lift bar seating restriction

Independent restaurants ask Shelby County Health Department to lift bar seating restriction

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Two separate judges have now sided with the Shelby County Health Department, ruling their closure of limited service restaurants in the county was legal.

Now some full service restaurants that remain open are asking the department to reconsider new guidelines just issued.

In a 14-page opinion released Thursday, Judge John Fowlkes wrote the Shelby County Health Department had the authority to shutter limited service restaurants in the county, given the pandemic.

“What is legal may not always be fair, but legality must prevail over fairness,” he wrote.

A similar ruling by a different judge was handed down in a nearly identical lawsuit Wednesday.

Earlier this month, the health department ordered limited service restaurants closed to dine-in patrons. Limited service restaurants are those where revenue from the sale of food it 50 percent or less. The classification also includes bars.

“There is a lot of latitude for public health authority in the event of an emergency, particularly a pandemic,” said Alisa Haushalter, Shelby County Health Department Director, when asked for reaction to the rulings Thursday.

The health department this week enacted new restrictions on full-service restaurants.

In addition to requiring they stop service by 10 p.m, the latest health directive says nobody can stand or sit at a bar, alcohol must be served with food and to customers who are seated at a table, and food service at a table is limited to two hours.

“We did have to expand our decision and say that even bars within restaurants at the current time cannot operate,” she said.

However, a group of two dozen restaurant owners sent a new letter to Shelby County Health Department Director Alisa Haushalter.

In it, the restaurateurs said the Memphis Restaurant Association leadership” has not been willing or able to share with you the unique challenges facing the independent sector of our industry.” The restaurant owners said they want to be able to utilize their bar areas to serve meals.

Haushalter said Thursday she plans to meet with a group of those who sent the document.

“I am always happy to have dialogue with others to better understand their unique circumstance and look for opportunities to continue our economy moving forward,” she said.

Ernie Mellor, the president of the Memphis Restaurant Association, told WMC Action News 5 on Thursday that “we don’t need a divided industry” and the association has always been there and open for member restaurants. Mellor declined to provide further comment past that.

As for limited service restaurants, their dining rooms remain closed per health department order. They can still offer take-out options.

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