Liquor department approved dozens of special event licenses during pandemic




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In April, Arizonans couldn’t legally drink at a bar because of Gov. Doug Ducey’s executive action aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t still attend a number of large events with temporary liquor licenses from the state.

And despite Ducey’s recent ban on new licenses, as well gatherings of more than 50 people, there are still plenty of big events on the calendar for the remainder of the year, which the Department of Liquor Licenses and Control has no plans to cancel.

On June 29, Ducey announced a statewide ban on special events of more than 50 people, though with a caveat that local government entities would still be permitted to approve them if physical distancing protocols and other safety precautions were in place. As part of that order, Ducey barred the liquor department from issuing temporary licenses that allow alcoholic beverages to be served at special events and for farm wineries and craft distilleries to serve alcohol at fairs and festivals. The prohibition runs from June 29 to July 27.

However, that doesn’t mean the show won’t go on when it comes to events that the liquor department has already approved. 

According to the agency’s records, the liquor department has issued 54 licenses for events scheduled to take place this year after Ducey announced his ban on large gatherings. Most of those events have yet to take place. Nearly two dozen received their licenses after the governor imposed his stay-at-home order on March 30 amid the worsening COVID-19 outbreak.

During the three-month period between the start of the stay-at-home order, which expired on May 15, and the enactment of the new ban on large gatherings, the liquor department approved 46 licenses for events, nearly three dozen of which have already taken place.

The liquor department has no plans to cancel any of the events it has approved for later this year, said agency spokesman Jeffrey Trillo.

“[W]e will not be taking action at the agency level, and will continue to follow the requirements as published by the Governor’s Office and ADHS,” Trillo said in an email to the Arizona Mirror, referring to the Arizona Department of Health Services.

Applications for special event licenses don’t have to say how many people they’re expecting to attend, though Trillo said that “it is generally understood an applicant’s intent is to host a significant number of people.” Local jurisdictions, which typically dictate things like size, location and security, must approve the applications first, then they go to the liquor department.

Joshua LaBaer, executive director of Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute, which is closely tracking the COVID-19 outbreak, said the state simply shouldn’t be permitting large events for the time being.

“Large events means that you’re going to bring people together where there’s a very good likelihood of transmission. We really should not be doing large gatherings anymore. It’s that simple. It just doesn’t make sense to do those right now,” LaBaer said.

While outdoor events with adequate spacing are certainly less risky than indoor gatherings, LaBaer said, even outdoor events where people are close together spread the virus and just shouldn’t be occurring.

“(There are) countless documented examples everywhere in the country and in the world of these events where people get together and where they become super-spreader events,” LaBaer said. “Time and time again, we see that these are the types of events where transmissions occur.”

Depending on where they occur, attendees at special events must wear face masks to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. But Ducey hasn’t mandated mask usage across the state, opting instead to let cities and counties make those decisions themselves. That has left pockets of the state without mask mandates, though the governor recently said such requirements apply to nearly 90% of Arizona.

Over the Independence Day weekend, Prescott hosted its annual Prescott Frontier Days rodeo, which received one special event liquor license in February and another on June 10. Rodeo organizers cancelled a planned dance and parade and limited seating capacity to 25 percent, though masks weren’t required of attendees. Neither Prescott nor Yavapai County have enacted mask mandates.

The Round Valley Rodeo in Eagar, in eastern Arizona, went on as planned over the Independence Day weekend. Photos from the event’s Facebook page show spectators in the stands, with some large groups of people sitting close together without masks. A sign at the entrance warned people, “Enter at your own risk.” 

Some events appear to have scaled down substantially since getting liquor department approval. The Flagstaff Pro Rodeo, which received its liquor department license in early April, just days into the governor’s stay-at-home order, cancelled all of its events except for mounted shooting and barrel racing, and reminded fans on its Facebook page that no spectators were permitted for the June 24-27 event due to Coconino County regulations.

Asked if he’s given any consideration to canceling the events that the liquor department has already approved and are still on the calendar for later in the year, Ducey indicated that he’s keeping the door open to the possibility.

“We’re going to review things that are on the calendar or things that are going to happen in the future that have been planned, and where government has a role in that decision-making or local government has a role, we’re going to be advocating or making the necessary decisions from our office,” the governor said at a press conference on Thursday.

Patrick Ptak, a spokesman for the governor, said the liquor department will reach out to the organizers of events that were approved prior to Ducey’s executive order to ensure that they know they must also get approval from their local governments as well. Without that approval, the events would be in violation of the order.

Arizona Mirror reporter Jerod MacDonald-Evoy contributed to this report.