SOUTH PARIS — Sunday River Brewing Co. is turning again to the courts in an effort to overturn the state’s denial of its eating and catering license renewal for the Bethel restaurant and bar.

Maine Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew on Tuesday accepted last week’s recommendation of a hearing officer who upheld a decision by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Health Inspection Program manager to reject the renewal of the restaurant’s license to operate.

Norway attorney Edward Dilworth III filed a petition Tuesday in Oxford County Superior Court on behalf of the restaurant’s owners seeking to reverse the state agency’s final action on the restaurant’s license application and allow the business to reopen.

Sunday River Brewing Co.’s eating and catering license expired Dec. 19. The restaurant has remained closed since then.

The state Department of Health and Human Services notified the business Dec. 7 that it didn’t intend to renew the restaurant’s license for another year due to repeated violations of Gov. Janet Mills’ emergency orders aimed at stopping the spread of COVID-19.

Dilworth also filed with the court a motion on behalf of co-owners Rick and Ron Savage seeking to postpone the state’s denial of the restaurant’s license renewal and hold an immediate hearing in the matter.

Co-owner Ron Savage signed an affidavit Tuesday saying the restaurant’s roughly 60 workers will seek employment elsewhere if the business is forced to stay closed.

“Sunday River Brewing Company’s injury of the loss of these employees is actual and imminent and one that cannot be remedied if this court waits until the end of this appeal to correct the denial of the renewal of Sunday River Brewing Company’s eating and catering license,” Savage wrote in a sworn statement submitted to the court with the motion.

The owners had sought to have the courts intervene the week before the restaurant’s license was due to expire and they would have to lock their doors, but the judge didn’t take up their case.

They’re hoping this time will be different.

In their petition, they’re asking the judge review a dozen actions taken by DHHS, including whether the decision by DHHS not to renew the restaurant’s health license was “proper.”

They’re also asking the judge to determine whether DHHS “is selectively going after Two Brothers, LLC (the restaurant’s corporation) because of their outspoken dissatisfaction with the governor’s ability to govern in violation of Sunday River Brewing Company’s constitutional rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments.”

The petition asks whether the alleged difference by DHHS in its treatment of the restaurant compared to other businesses “is retribution for Sunday River Brewing Company exercising its First Amendment right to speak out” and is therefore a violation of its constitutional rights.

The petition asks the judge to determine whether the business was denied constitutionally guaranteed due process rights because DHHS failed to renew the restaurant’s license without a postponement to give them a chance to present their case that they promise to stay in compliance with health regulations going forward.

In its argument supporting the need for a stay of DHHS’ nonrenewal of the license and for an immediate hearing in the matter, Dilworth wrote in his motion that the restaurant had been in full compliance with Mills’ order at the time of the application for license renewal and the restaurant had invited state inspectors to verify that claim.

The attorney representing DHHS hadn’t responded to the petition or the motion by Wednesday, Dilworth said.

“The department refused to conduct an inspection even though they had representatives in the Bethel area during this time period,” the motion says. “By failing to do an unannounced inspection, (it) afforded  the department to say they are unaware if (the restaurant) was in full compliance.”

Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Health Inspection Program Manager Lisa Silva testified at a Dec. 22 hearing as a witness for DHHS.

She said the restaurant had been cited four times for having imminent health hazards and five times for temporary license suspensions as well as two temporary restraining orders between May 1 and Dec. 1.

Silva said the restaurant had continued to operate during the periods immediately following each of those notices and orders.

The “repeatedly uncorrected violations primarily included ‘not wearing face coverings or masks for both staff and patrons, ‘social distancing,’ and ‘plexiglass … no barrier between the bartender and patrons,” she said.

She testified that other state agencies, such as the Bureau of Alcohol and Tobacco Enforcement, have noted the same violations during their inspections.

State Administrative Hearing Officer Richard W. Thackeray Jr. wrote in his Dec. 23 decision that DHHS “was correct when it issued a notice of denial” of the restaurant’s eating and catering license renewal application.

He ruled that “a preponderance of the evidence supports a conclusion that the department correctly determined that Sunday River Brewing Co. had sufficiently exhibited a pattern of noncompliance with the terms of its license despite evidence that the department had provided technical assistance and guidance that ought to have resulted in compliance” by the restaurant.

An Oxford County judge had approved a temporary restraining order in October against the restaurant, spelling out terms under which they could operate.

Last month, finding the restaurant had failed to adhere to his order, the judge found the restaurant in contempt and imposed a daily fine of $5,000 going forward if the restaurant were to continue to remain open during the time the temporary restraining order remained in effect.

The restaurant reopened Dec. 11, but closed again on Dec. 19 when its license expired.

Dilworth said the restaurant had been in full compliance during that period.

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