Sunday River Brewing Co. may reopen on Thursday but can’t serve alcohol through Dec. 28 after staff and the owners were found violating COVID-19 protocols nearly 50 times, an Oxford County judge ruled Friday.
Superior Court Justice Thomas McKeon also fined the owners, brothers Rick and Ron Savage, $34,000 for the violations, which date back to May.
The Maine Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operations had requested that Sunday River Brewing’s liquor license be revoked, according to McKeon’s order. McKeon rejected that request, but said the license revocation was a possibility if the Bethel restaurant did not comply with the guidelines that include wearing masks and social distancing.
Last month, on Nov. 12, McKeon ordered the restaurant to close for 30 days after the brothers violated an October injunction restricting its operations until its licenses were reinstated after state inspectors found new violations of state coronavirus mandates, including continued violations of state face covering requirements.
McKeon held a hearing Wednesday on the restaurant’s request to reopen and the alcohol bureau’s motion to revoke Sunday River Brewing’s liquor license. The judge issued two separate rulings Friday.
The judge rejected the Savage brothers’ argument that the state had singled them out for inspections because of Rick Savage’s criticism of Gov. Janet Mills’ restrictions on business operations aimed at limiting the spread of the coronavirus.
“If an eating establishment openly and repeatedly defies state regulations, that establishment is more likely to gain the attention of state regulators, as opposed to a noncompliant establishment about whom there have been no complaints,” McKeon said.
The judge also said that, at least three times, inspectors were treated with hostility and verbal abuse at the restaurant, threatened with arrest, told they would be exposed in a public forum, chased off the property, and told that they would hear from the Maine Militia.
“The defendant’s self-proclaimed status as ‘the most inspected facility in the state’ is the result of Rick Savage’s unacceptable conduct, not the exercise of his free speech rights,” McKeon said. “Rick Savage has also failed to comply with specific promises he has made to this court.
“Although Savage is entitled to criticize the state’s pandemic orders in whatever lawful forum he so chooses, he should nonetheless expect the state to enforce its regulations in the face of aggressive, notorious and pervasive defiance of lawful regulations,” the judge continued. Regardless of opinion, no establishment is entitled to violate the law.”
The Savage brothers’ attorney, Ted Dilworth of Bethel, and the Maine Attorney General’s office declined to comment Friday afternoon.
Rick Savage and other business owners in May challenged the governor’s quarantine restrictions in federal court. And U.S. District Judge Lance Walker, a Trump appointee, upheld them in August, finding that Mills and state health officials have a constitutional right to act on behalf of public health and safety in emergencies such as a pandemic. The judge chastised the business owners for looking out for their own interests during a public health crisis.
Savage and the other business owners appealed Walker’s decision to the 1st U.S. Circuit of Appeals in Boston but withdrew that appeal last month.
Rick Savage had promised to defy McKeon’s Nov. 12 order that the restaurant close, despite accruing $600 fines for each day Sunday River Brewing remained open. But at Wednesday’s hearing, he offered through Dilworth to stay away from the restaurant and let his brother oversee day-to-day operations.
Savage has been a vocal opponent of Mills’ coronavirus-related business restrictions since the spring, even reading Mills’ cell phone number on air during an appearance on Fox News.
After continuing to operate despite having his licenses temporarily revoked, Sunday River Brewing was ordered to close in May, but Savage pledged to defy the order even if it meant going to jail.
The restaurant’s license has been suspended six times but the business has operated 100 days during suspensions since the spring, according to the Maine Attorney General’s office.
McKeon’s orders apply to the operations of the restaurant, not the brewery.