By Kevin Reagan
Staff Writer San Tan Sun
The owner of Rick’s Pub and Grub hopes state authorities will allow his restaurant to quickly reopen after it was recently found to be operating in violation of Arizona’s COVID-19 restrictions.
Tony Harris, who took ownership of Rick’s Pub last year, is confident the Arizona Department of Health Services will rescind its recent decision to force the Chandler bar to close after he pleads his case before the agency.
“I shouldn’t be shut down,” Harris said. “I’ve been operating within guidelines completely.”
The state posted a notice on Labor Day advising Harris his business was not allowed to serve customers until he could prove Rick’s Pub, 4910 West Ray Road, was following guidelines set by the Department of Health to curb the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
At least two Scottsdale and one Tempe tavern were shut down a week earlier after authorities found them to be overcrowded with customers who were not spread far enough apart from each other.
In the case of Rick’s Pub, inspectors claim they recently found the restaurant to have at least 112 occupants – 12 more than its permissible limit. The bar and restaurant can normally hold up to 200 visitors, but new regulations have forced Rick’s Pub to scale back its customer capacity.
On July 9, Gov. Doug Ducey signed an executive order that forced all restaurants to cut their occupancy levels by 50 percent and to space out seating areas by at least six feet.
Harris said he had been following these specific guidelines and disputes how state authorities conducted their occupancy count at his bar.
He claims the state’s count wasn’t done correctly because it contrasts with counts done by his staff.
But regardless of the numbers, Harris said he’s eager to remedy the issue quickly and prove his restaurant can follow the government’s rules.
“Whatever they want me to do to be in compliance – even if i think it’s silly – I don’t care, I will make people do that,” he said.
The state Department of Health Services is requiring bars like Rick’s Pub to apply for permission to reopen by submitting plans that demonstrate its ability to conform to COVID-19 guidelines.
The order covers bars with Series 6 and 7 licenses, indicating the businesses primarily serve beer, wine and alcohol with food a relatively minor part of their menu.
State health officials initially gave Rick’s Pub the green light reopen before they later found evidence that led to the closure order.
One business that didn’t get that green light was Jolie’s Place on Warner Road, which was told on Aug. 19 that it had failed to prove it was willing to take extra steps to ensure a safe operation.
Bars are required to limit groups to no more than 10 people, prohibit customers from mingling around the dining area, ban karaoke and dancing and enforce a face mask order.
A video that had been posted last week on the Rick’s Pub Facebook page depicts several customers seated throughout the restaurant and very few can be seen wearing a mask.
Harris said he was told customers were free to remove their mask once they’re seated at their table.
He said he’s been requiring every visitor to be wearing a mask when they first enter the restaurant and he’s been willing to turn someone away if they don’t comply.
If there’s been any changes or revisions to the state’s mask requirements, Harris said he’s willing to enforce them.
This last year has been a tumultuous journey for Rick’s Pub and the pandemic continues to add new challenges for the restaurant’s owner.
Harris’s father, who assumed ownership of the restaurant a few years ago, died last November from lung cancer and passed the business down to his son.
Harris said he spent the next couple months trying to revamp the restaurant’s image and elevate it to being more than just a pub and dive bar.
The new owner wanted to attract more customers and bring in some fresh musical acts that could liven up the bar’s atmosphere.
But Harris said his father’s old customers and staff weren’t all pleased with his changes.
As a result, there’s been some unavoidable bad blood and Harris suspects it has resulted in his alleged foes reporting Rick’s Pub to the state authorities for COVID-19 violations.
“I feel completely sabotaged – it goes beyond this COVID thing,” he said.
Harris said he’s willing to put aside his suspicions and focus on getting the business back open because he needs the revenue.
Rick’s Pub has had to close and reopen multiple times since the pandemic began back in March, Harris said, so he’s hopeful he can finally find some stability in the near future.
This business is not part of some national franchise that can get bailed out with a bunch of corporate money, he added, saying it’s a small business that depends on locals to keep it afloat.
“I have to open,” Harris said. “Otherwise they’re going to put me out of business with this thing.”
Not complying with or defying the state’s order could subject Rick’s Pub to civil and criminal penalties.