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WA liquor agents followed and confronted after notifying Tri-Cities bar of COVID violation

UPDATED: Sat., Nov. 28, 2020

By Annette Cary Tri-City Herald

KENNEWICK – State liquor control officers were followed and confronted after they served a notice of violation at Koko’s Bartini in Kennewick this week.

On Tuesday afternoon, officers for the Washington state Liquor and Cannabis Board stopped at the bar to deliver the notice, which said the bar was serving liquor indoors in violation of a state ban on indoor service during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Contrary to reports of customers who said eight liquor control officers showed up at the Kennewick bar, Brian Smith, spokesman for the liquor board, said four officers went to the location.

It was the fourth time liquor control officers have visited the bar since it refused to end indoor service as required by Gov. Jay Inslee’s pandemic-safety mandate starting Nov. 18.

The ban on indoor drinking and dining at restaurants and bars across the state is in effect until at least Dec. 14 as new COVID-19 cases across the state skyrocket and some hospitals elsewhere in the state are at capacity. Delivery, take-out and limited outdoor dining and drinking continue to be allowed.

Koko’s Bartini was initially given a written warning by an officer.

When it continued to serve customers indoors, an officer returned twice, once during normal business hours and then at the start of business hours another day. Both times the bar was full and the officer left rather than escalate the situation, Smith said.

Liquor officers confronted

On Tuesday afternoon, two of the four officers who went to Koko’s Bartini stayed in the parking lot and two others went to the door. Although it was locked, they could see people inside, Smith said.

Workers would not let the officers inside, but an employee opened the back door and signed for the notice of violation, Smith said.

Bar owner Dana Slovak told the Herald he was not there, but talked on the phone with an agent and told him they needed a warrant to enter the business.

The officers did not try to enter the business again, but a warrant is not needed for an officer to enter a public place, including bars and restaurants, Smith said.

“We are trying not to escalate because people are confrontational,” he told Herald. “We don’t want this to turn into a bigger situation than it is.”

As officers returned to their cars, three cars “rushed” into the parking lot, Smith said.

The officers drove away, heading to a nearby location where they planned to debrief, but were followed by several cars, he said.

When officers stopped, people got out of their cars and yelled at the officers, Smith said. They said the officers were infringing on their rights.

The officers, who routinely carry firearms, again left to prevent the situation from escalating, Smith said.

Fine or license suspension

The notice of violation requires Koko’s Bartini to either pay a $500 fine or accept a short-term suspension of its liquor license. It may appeal the notice of violation or attempt to resolve the matter informally at a hearing with the board, rather than paying the fine or accepting a short-term suspension.

Liquor control officers will continue to visit the bar to see if it is in compliance with the state pandemic order as the violation is resolved, Smith said. The bar posted on social media that it would be open for indoor service Wednesday and Friday this week.

The owner “faces escalating penalties if he chooses to continue to defy,” Smith said.

That includes an emergency suspension of the bar’s liquor license and then possible permanent loss of the liquor license.

“We don’t want to do that,” Smith said. “We want them to follow the law just like neighboring businesses are.”

Koko’s stopped indoor service after the initial state pandemic order in March, which was lifted for Benton County in October.

When Gov. Inslee reinstated the ban on indoor restaurant and bar service last week, Koko’s remained open for indoor service in what it has called a “peaceful protest” against state mandates that limit businesses.

On the bar’s regular business days over the last week it has invited people to come to the bar to drink and eat, telling them to bring protest signs.

Koko’s Bartini has posted photos of customer signs saying, “Bartini Lives Matter – will not comply,” and “My Choice – You Stay Home.”

The owner of Koko’s Bartini said Tuesday morning at a Pasco rally opposing business restrictions that he believes the Celski Law Firm in Kennewick has found a legal “loophole” that will allow him to continue to provide indoor service.

Two days earlier, more than a dozen people used an electronic bullhorn to protest outside the Kennewick home of a liquor control officer after KoKo’s was served with a warning letter.

Speakers, including Joey Gibson, founder of the controversial activist group Patriot Prayer in Vancouver, Washington, called for the officer to come out and face protesters and to “stand down” from enforcing the governor’s order.

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