TUSCALOOSA, AL. — The Tuscaloosa City Council unanimously voted in favor Tuesday to approve a round of relief funding to help mitigate loses for bars closed for two weeks by an executive order in late August. The measure passed the full Council unanimously, with District 5 Councilman Kip Tyner and District 6's Eddie Pugh absent.
The Lounge Assistance Program will allocate up to $400,000 from funds budgeted from Restart Tuscaloosa in the budget for the new fiscal year, with payments set to be dispersed beginning Sept. 18. Businesses eligible for the funds, who must possess a lounge liquor license, will first be vetted by a committee, with their awards being assessed by need.
District 4 Councilman Lee Busby, who represents a district where many of the 29 bars are located, will sit on the committee and explained the rigorous structure of the vetting process, which will see committee member sift through records pertaining to finances, taxes and police compliance.
"I can assure you it's not just handing out money because they asked," he said. "It is a rigorous process and the fact is, at the end of it, not everybody is going to be happy anyways."
City Attorney Glenda Webb said the city had received a total of 20 applications to date.
While $1.5 million was budgeted for Restart Tuscaloosa for the coming fiscal year, the majority of the funding will be used to support the Tuscaloosa Tourism & Sports Commission, with the remainder being appropriated by the Council for the Lounge Assistance Program.
Retiree James Gunner addressed the council members during the public comments portion of the meeting and spoke in opposition of the emergency funding.
"I'm not for the bars, I don’t go in them, but that was a mistake to close all of them," Gunner said. "Why didn’t they go down and disperse the crowds? So what happened? The mayor wants to spend $400,000 on the Lounge Assistance Program and half of the bar owners didn’t even want it. Some of them needed it, but most of them wanted to go to work."
Gunner then pointed to a wide range of cuts to different city departments and agencies in the budget for the upcoming fiscal year and asked the City Council where the money would come from.
"I spent 32 years in the military," he said. "We were given a mission and that was Plan A. If that didn’t work, we had a Plan B, then we had two rally points to drop back on, then two LZ’s — landing zones — to pick us up. The mayor’s program had no backup."
Chad Smith, owner of Alcove International Tavern and co-owner of Loosa Brews, has been a vocal supporter of Tuscaloosa's nightlife economy during the ongoing pandemic and spoke to the City Council again on Tuesday not only to urge for approval of the funding, but to also consider how bars will be treated if an uptick in cases occurs again in the near future at the University of Alabama.
While Loosa Brews was able to stay open by virtue of its liquor license, Alcove was one of the 29 businesses shut down for two weeks by executive order in late August.
"What happens when the next UA outbreak happens, if it happens? Hopefully it doesn’t," Smith said. "We are all on the same team here, but as far as team players go, I'm sort of on the team that looks bad and it doesn’t feel real great and if another outbreak does happen, my fate, the 29 license holders' fate, can not be tied to the UA numbers. There’s not enough justification for that and it's plainly just wrong in several ways."
Smith was also critical of the city's approach to interpreting new COVID-19 data and then crafting policy impacting business, while not cutting in business owners on the rationale or specifics. He then pointed to generalized instances where a small number of bar owners did not observe public health guidelines, in addition to large gatherings of students, being the prompt for the city to implement the executive order.
More than a week after the order expired and bars were allowed to reopen, Smith explained that no data had been provided to local business owners showing a correlation between bar operations and the increased local spread of the coronavirus.
"None of that type of affirmative information was presented to us," he said.
Following Smith's public comments ahead of the vote, Busby did concede that the city's lounge liquor establishments were on the negative end of a plan that had to be rapidly thrown together and imperfectly implemented.
The decision by Mayor Walt Maddox to issue the executive order closing bars came on the advice of health officials at the University of Alabama when a spike in new cases was reported on the Tuscaloosa campus at the end of August.
"It got the good along with the bad," Busby said. "We did it because we've got an employer of 11,000 people down the road that was teetering on the verge of thinking it would have to close."