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New group to lobby for NM bars, venues

To-go orders and outdoor dining have been the saving grace for some bars with kitchens like Sister Bar in Downtown Albuquerque. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

After being closed for nine months, New Mexico bar and entertainment venue owners are banding together to form an association to lobby on their behalf.

“What’s happening is the bar owners who, arguably, have been the most severely impacted by the shutdown, really have had little chance at relief,” said Matt Kennicott, one of the organizers of the newly created New Mexico Bar, Entertainment and Nightclub Association. “They had little assistance coming their way from either the state or the federal government.”

All “close-contact recreational facilities” like bars, indoor movie theaters and event venues have been closed due to public health orders since early spring and will remain closed for the foreseeable future.

Under New Mexico’s new red to green framework, a county-by-county reopening plan, close-contact recreational facilities will remain closed even at the least restrictive “green” level. By comparison, restaurants will be allowed to offer indoor dining at 50% capacity at this level.

Kennicott said many business owners have been applying for loans, but there haven’t been any opportunities to reopen.

Adding to the financial burden for bars, he said, are yearly liquor license fees paid to the state.

While the state has waived associated late fees for the licenses, the fees themselves, which range from $750 to $1,300, have not yet been waived.

A spokeswoman for the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Division said fees are defined by statute and therefore cannot be waived by the agency.

“Generally, agencies have more discretion in waiving rules but cannot change statutory requirements without legislative approval or authorization,” spokeswoman Bernice Geiger wrote in an email.

Kennicott said a priority of the group is getting the fees suspended. But he said the upcoming legislative session could also provide an opportunity for other temporary changes in liquor laws, such as allowing for alcohol to-go.

While the association is prioritizing waiving yearly liquor license fees, its membership extends beyond bars to other close-contact recreational facilities like trampoline parks and amusement parks, which have also been closed since March.

Jesus Zamora, owner of Sister Bar, said the entertainment industry has long lacked representation, unlike other industry groups like the New Mexico Restaurant Association.

Zamora said industry groups like the New Mexico Brewers Guild were able to lobby on their members’ behalf, but there wasn’t any organization speaking for bar owners.

“I feel like our lack of organized representation was definitely felt during the pandemic,” he said.

He said he sees little difference between distilleries and bars aside from the fact that distilleries are able to remain open and earn money from alcohol sales.

Zamora said there have been talks of attempting to get statutes governing liquor sales temporarily changed to allow for packaged sales, which could allow bars to potentially sell pre-made cocktails or even growler fills.

“To allow for licensees who only can serve by the drink on the license premises to be allowed to sell to-go (essentially package sales) would need legislative enactment,” the ABC Division’s Geiger said.

For some bar owners, being a member of an industry group could allow for the playing field to be evened between bars and breweries.

Mark Travis, owner of The Dirty Bourbon Dance Hall & Saloon, said it’s frustrating to see breweries continue to operate and have restaurants operate like bars while his business has to remain completely closed.

“It’s just been frustrating that we’re not given any guidance or haven’t been allowed to even try to do anything,” he said.

Adding to that frustration is the continuation of bills such as rent and utilities that still need to be paid without any revenue to pay those bills.

“It’s not like all of this stuff just goes away,” he said. “There’s still lots of stuff that we still have to pay as far as like typical overhead.”

He said paying taxes posed an additional problem since there was no income to pay the taxes, but the taxes had to be current in order for liquor licenses to be renewed.

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