The Arizona Department of Liquor Licenses and Control has indefinitely suspended the liquor license of Sarah’s Bull Pen in Safford and the bar’s owner feels as though she was targeted.
“I think it’s ridiculous,” Sarah Henderson said Sunday afternoon. “I’m the only one out of every bar that has followed every rule. Something’s going on and I don’t know why.”
On Friday, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey issued an executive order lifting an earlier rule he imposed limiting the indoor capacity of bars and restaurants to 50% of what their space holds. However, patrons are still required to wear masks when not seated and physical distancing is still required between tables.
According to the notice of suspension, more than 50 people were in Sarah’s Bullpen Friday night without social distancing and many of them weren’t wearing masks. Nor were the bar’s three bartenders. The notice further states that Henderson was given a warning by the state earlier.
The suspension, which went into effect Saturday, will remain in place until the “licensee can demonstrate to the department’s satisfaction that it is in compliance and will remain in compliance with (the) executive order and ADHS COVID-19 mitigation requirements, as well as the department statutes and rules referenced in this order. A hearing in this matter shall be promptly instituted and determined.”
On Sunday, an often tearful Henderson said she plans to retain an attorney. If the suspension continues for a lengthy period of time, it would be financially devastating for her, she said.
In her opinion, the liquor board, state health department and Gov. Ducey’s office don’t communicate well with each other and conflicting information is being disseminated and/or information is being interpreted differently by each. It is her belief that social distancing is not required anymore, just strongly encouraged.
“It’s understood that there’s still a virus and we’re still being encouraged to be in a bubble,” Henderson said.
As for her bartenders, Henderson said they do wear masks, but only when they are near customers. When behind the bar, they are often more than six feet away from them, she said.
She also disputes the allegation that she was given a warning. According to her, the state health department paid her a visit, but only to make sure she understood the COVID-19 requirements. Although she acknowledges inspectors observed two employees without masks that day, one was eating and the other had only removed it momentarily while moving stock and wasn’t near anyone else at the time.
“I did everything they asked after that meeting,” Henderson said, adding that she moved tables around and “ridiculously overdid signage” about social distancing and not moving tables.
Ever since COVID-19 hit, Henderson said she has done everything necessary to keep her staff and patrons safe. She’s made masks available, put up sanitizing stations and encouraged social distancing. She’s also in the process of expanding her backyard to make more space for social distancing, going so far as to buy a shipping container for a sound barrier. She’s also been working with the city to put up a brick wall for the same purpose.
“I’ve spent thousands of dollars I don’t have to make sure we are safe,” Henderson said. “I’m by the book because I don’t want to lose my business. I’ve found something that I love.”
For the last several months, Henderson said one of the bar’s neighbors has repeatedly filed complaints against her with the Safford Police. She suspects Friday’s state inspection may have been related.
“I’m being brutally attacked in so many ways and I don’t know where to go,” Henderson, whose family roots go deep in the Gila Valley, said. “I’m not a bad person.”
Since word of the suspension got out, Henderson said she’s received calls and visits from several customers who are apologizing.
“It breaks my heart because they think it’s their fault it’s happened and it’s not,” she said.
Last week, the state House voted along party lines to approve a measure that would allow the owner of each and every business to decide whether employees and customers have to comply with a mask mandate. That measure, HB 2770, now awaits Senate action.