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Spokane Valley bar dispute escalates with state citation over violation of stay-home restrictions; owner vows to fight

UPDATED: Thu., May 21, 2020

Brandon Fenton, owner of The Black Diamond restaurant in Spokane Valley, serving drinks at the business on Monday, May 18, 2020. Agents from the state Liquor and Cannabis Board issued Fenton a citation Wednesday night for not complying with Gov. Jay Inslee’s order for businesses to remain closed during the pandemic. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Brandon Fenton, owner of The Black Diamond restaurant in Spokane Valley, serving drinks at the business on Monday, May 18, 2020. Agents from the state Liquor and Cannabis Board issued Fenton a citation Wednesday night for not complying with Gov. Jay Inslee’s order for businesses to remain closed during the pandemic. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

State agents have issued a Spokane Valley bar owner a citation for remaining open in defiance of a state business closure order, but the bar owner says he may continue to fight what he calls government overreach.

Brandon Fenton, owner of The Black Diamond at 9614 E. Sprague Ave., said two agents from the Washington state Liquor and Cannabis Board came to his restaurant Wednesday night and issued a citation for the “licensee involved in criminal conduct” for defying Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay-home order.

“I think it was more of a formality and a flexing of muscles and a political move rather than any actual concern over what we were doing,” Fenton said Thursday morning.

The business will remain closed Thursday, which Fenton said was for letting himself and staff have a day rest after several days of heavy business.

“The overwhelming support from everybody has been amazing. We have had hundreds and hundreds of people come through, everybody being supportive and agreeing with the stand we are taking,” he said. “We don’t want to stop.”

But the decision may not be up to Fenton, said Brian Smith, Liquor and Cannabis Board spokesman. He said agents cited Fenton after finding him open in violation of orders put in place to help limit the spread of the coronavirus.

Agents also visited the Village Tavern in Airway Heights and the Iron Horse Bar and Grill at 11105 E. Sprague Ave. in Spokane Valley, which were both found to be closed and in compliance.

“It’s basically a criminal action: operating illegally. That’s the citation that they have received,” Smith said of Fenton and The Black Diamond.

Under the first violation, Fenton could face a penalty or suspension of his liquor license, Smith said.

“If it escalates, it could turn to a longer suspension and then a revocation,” he said. “The vast majority of bars have been complaint. A small minority have willfully defied the order.”

Fenton said he understands his license could be suspended. But he said the agents explained to him that he is being cited under a law that punishes bar owners who purposefully overserve customers or purposefully serve alcohol to minors, which he said he clearly was not doing.

“They are grasping at straws,” Fenton said. “They are just trying to find something and squeeze in a violation instead of me actually violating some sort of law or rule.”

Fenton said he has been following the capacity rules and social distancing guidelines dictated by Inslee’s Phase 2 opening guidelines – yet to be approved by the state for Spokane County. He’s hoping that Spokane County receives clearance by Friday so that he can reopen without continued threats from the state.

“I had a visit from (state agents) on Monday and everything was outlined to me about the verbal warning and a written ticket and how long it would take,” Fenton said. “That changed from Monday to Wednesday because of the media attention.”

Smith acknowledged as much, saying the state had become aware of bars willfully defying Inslee’s order.

“If they continue to defy the order, it will continue to escalate,” he said.

Fenton said the state said his license could be suspended up to 180 days.

“If I am operating again without the governor opening up the county, they would do an emergency suspension, which would go to the board to determine the time frame,” he said. “I’m not necessarily afraid of it.”

That means he could open again Friday, even if Inslee does not give Spokane County clearance, he said.

“We just ask that everybody continue to support us and our staff and show the state that this isn’t right,” Fenton said. “We do need some changes to the law for powers that the governor has in a state of emergency, so that one person doesn’t have all that power and doesn’t abuse it as well.”

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