Kansas City bar and restaurant sues mayor over COVID-19 restrictions

The business owners claim restrictions to curb the virus have led to a "vast economic loss of great proportions"


Joyce Smith and Allison Kite
The Kansas City Star
        
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — O'Dowd's Gastrobar on the Country Club Plaza is suing Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas, seeking to overturn COVID-19 restrictions on bars and restaurants.

The suit was filed earlier this month in the Circuit Court of Jackson County by Kansas City attorney Michael Gunter, who previously filed another COVID-19 suit against the city.

The owners of O'Dowd's said they are well aware that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused death and pain to millions and will continue to do so, but it also is creating a "vast economic loss of great proportions."

Restaurants across the nation have been forced to operate under a variety of restrictions to protect public health since the start of the pandemic last year.
Restaurants across the nation have been forced to operate under a variety of restrictions to protect public health since the start of the pandemic last year. (Stacey Wescott / Chicago Tribune via TNS)

Under the mayor's latest restrictions on bars and restaurants, O'Dowd's said it has been forced to close temporarily because it cannot produce enough revenue to pay rent and utilities, vendors, employees and other operating expenses.

In the lawsuit, O'Dowd's says large companies, such as casinos, have not had the same restrictions. They also have access to more capital than small, locally owned businesses. O'Dowd's argues that other Kansas City operations are allowed to stay open later to serve food and drink, such as convenience stores. And it says the mayor doesn't have the legal authority to issue the orders.

O'Dowd's is one of KC Hopps Ltd.'s restaurant concepts. In a statement, Ed Nelson of KC Hopps said: "We feel the lawsuit speaks for itself. We want due process as required by the law and we want the rules to be fair for all businesses, even those small ones like us that don't have millions of dollars to pay lobbyists and attorneys."

In a statement, Lucas said Kansas City has created its COVID rules based on "data-driven advice from health and scientific leaders from the White House and CDC down to our Health Department."

"The O'Dowd's lawsuit is without merit under Missouri law just like the suits filed against us before," Lucas said. "As it has been since the onset of this pandemic, our primary objective is to save lives."

Lucas said the city's rules and personal actions — including wearing masks, avoiding crowds and washing hands — have resulted in a decline in cases. The goal, he said, is to keep reducing cases and getting more residents vaccinated.

New COVID-19 cases in the Kansas City metropolitan area recently dropped to fewer than 300 for the first time in more than three months. The seven-day average for daily new cases dropped to 464. One week ago, the average sat at 580, and two weeks ago it was 698, according to data maintained by The Star.

After an Oct. 24 inspection, the Kansas City Health Department temporarily suspended the O'Dowd's license for "over 50% capacity and lack of mask usage." The owners submitted a corrective action plan to the department and said they were working with the city on a plan to reopen and operate safely for their customers and staff.

But they soon posted a sign on the door of the restaurant, saying with the new restrictions they planned to close until spring.

"Please ask your senator and representative to pass another round of PPP loans and extended unemployment benefits to help the thousands of businesses and staff irreparably harmed due to no fault of their own," O'Dowd's said.

The Blue Line, a hockey-themed bar in the city's River Market neighborhood, sued in November, claiming a 10 p.m. curfew Kansas City had in place at the time was illegal. The bar's owners wanted the city to allow them to open for normal hours during the holiday season, arguing the business makes 40% of its revenue between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m.

"Restaurants such as plaintiff's have struggled through many of the orders and the COVID-19 epidemic in general with being asked to close entirely, to then being allowed to reopen through seating restrictions, causing loss of revenue to not only the business but income to plaintiff's employees," the Blue Line petition says. Gunter also filed that lawsuit.

The mayor said he "takes no pleasure in imposing mandates," but the city is in an "extraordinary" situation.

"And we sure as hell aren't backing down or changing course due to fear of a lawsuit filed by the same lawyer who couldn't bother to spell my name right in the last lawsuit he filed against me over our COVID guidelines," Lucas said.

The parties canceled a hearing on a temporary restraining order the Blue Line requested, hoping to swiftly undo Lucas' curfew. But the lawsuit is still pending.

That 10 p.m. curfew went into effect in mid-November, and Lucas argued it was necessary to keep large late-night crowds from spreading COVID-19 during the holidays. But the city has since relaxed that curfew to midnight.

Bars and restaurants in Kansas City are still limited to serving 50% of their normal capacity and parties of no more than 10 people. Staff and patrons are required to wear masks at all times unless actively eating or drinking.

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