Bars, nightclubs sue City of Indianapolis, health department over COVID-19 restrictions


INDIANAPOLIS — The owners of more than a dozen bars and nightclubs filed a lawsuit Tuesday against the City of Indianapolis, Mayor Joe Hogsett, the Marion County Public Health Department and Dr. Virginia Caine for “stringent and inflexible business restrictions that have led to millions of dollars in losses over a period of just a few months.”

Among the allegations in the lawsuit are that the defendants violated the bar owners’ constitutional rights of equal protection by “singling out their businesses to bear the brunt of months-long business closures and over strict capacity requirements, while other businesses, including restaurants, were allowed to remain open and at greater capacity.”

The Orders specifically addressed in the complaint include:

  • Stricter restrictions on bars and night clubs located in Marion county as opposed to the rest of the state of Indiana,
  • Stricter restrictions on bars that cater to adults only as opposed to kids,
  • Outlawing seating that is adjacent to bars as opposed to tables,
  • Outlawing live entertainment,
  • Outlawing dancing
  • Requiring businesses to close at midnight even though capacity restrictions are in place.

A city spokesperson said the city does not comment on pending litigation.

“Mayor Hogsett fully supports the Marion County Public Health Department’s leadership and ongoing health orders, which have slowed the spread of the virus in our city and continue to save lives,” said Mark Bode, Deputy Communications Director at City of Indianapolis.

The businesses involved in the lawsuit are: Bar Indy LLC, Tiki Bobs Cantina, Revel Bar Indy LLC, Invy Nightclub, Isentark Entertainment, LLC, Coaches Tavern, BEMbars, Inc., Courtside Convenience (S.O.S. Pub), R&D Companies, Inc., Joes Grill Castleton, Whistle Stop Inn Inc., The Whistle Stop Inn, Classic 46, Inc., That Place Bar & Grill, Tad Indy Inc., Taps and Dolls, After 6 Lounge, Jokers Comedy Club, 247 Sky Bar, New Journey, LLC Whiskey Business Lawrence, I2V, LLC, Whiskey Business Southport, Kore Enterprises, Inc., Average Joe’s Sports Pub, Rock Lobster, Mineshaft Saloon, Basey LLC, Basey’s Downtown, Milo Entertainment LLC, The Red Room, 5135 Holdings Inc., Mickie’s Pub, and D & D Lugar Inc.

The plaintiffs are requesting that the court find these Orders unlawful and strike them down
so “they can save their businesses before it is too late.”

“What was once a thriving nightlife scene that revitalized the economic fortunes of the city and made Indianapolis one of the best convention destinations in America is now littered with boarded up windows, pop up tents and empty tables,” the group said in a release. “Forced business closures by the City, and then later, severe business restrictions more stringent than those put in place by the Governor in his Back on Track Indiana plan, have put each of these owners and their families on the brink of financial ruin.”

Tom Sutton is one of the owners of Coaches Tavern in downtown Indianapolis. He has helped run the bar for 12 years. 2020 though has served months of worry and frustration for his business.

“We are watching our dream get destroyed from things that are out of our control,” he said.

These businesses argue the restrictions on their establishments based on the products they sell and age of patrons are unfair.

“There is no justification that establishments that serve older people are more likely to spread the COVID-19 virus than establishments that serve children, such as Chuck E. Cheese Pizza,” said the complaint.

In late July, bars and nightclubs in Marion County were forced to shut down again. The Marion County Public Health Department said these businesses were a site of concern.

At the time of that announcement, officials said 75 percent of non-compliance citations had gone to bars and taverns. The county had received 249 complaints since the mask mandate took effect on July 9.

The Marion County Public Health Department also noted an increase in cases involving people between the ages of 20 and 39. Between late March and late April, that age group made up 26 percent of cases. When the county decided to close bars again in July, they made up 44 percent of new cases. As of two weeks ago, they made up 32 percent.

“It is very frustrating because everything is not black and white and as we have tried to adapt to open, the order gets changed a little bit more,” said Jason Stellema, owner of Tiki Bob’s Cantina.

Stellema is allowed to reopen his business because of Marion County’s latest health order that took effect on September 8. Bars and nightclubs may reopen at 25 percent capacity for indoor seating and 50 percent for outdoor seating. Dance floors must remained closed and live entertainment is not permitted.

“Dancing does transpire here. It would not make sense to put a bunch of tables on the dance floor,” said Stellema.

They are concerned Marion County’s health order is still more restrictive than Governor Holcomb’s executive order. The state is moving to Stage 5 starting Saturday which is leaving Indianapolis bars wondering if change will also come to their city.

“Our goal is to be treated the same way the bars in Hamilton County and Johnson County and all the donut counties,” said Stellema.

Marion County Public Health Department said they are reviewing the lawsuit. They said they will continue to exercise its authority consistent with the best interests of their community.

The full verified complaint can be read below:

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