During the depths of the Covid-19 pandemic, the LGBTQ+-friendly, downtown bar Scarlet Honolulu became a symbol of what many in the bar and restaurant business said was overzealous enforcement of pandemic restrictions.

After Honolulu Liquor Commission inspectors allegedly forced their way into the bar and assaulted one of its owners in the process, Scarlet filed a federal lawsuit saying the commission had violated the club’s civil rights. And for every Scarlet — which has been one of the few establishments willing to speak out publicly against the commission and go to court – there are others that have complained privately about what they describe as bullying by bureaucrats with badges.

“A lot of the allegations – I hear it repeatedly from different establishments,” says Honolulu City Council member Esther Kiaaina. “People are not going to want to speak on the record to you because they’re scared.”

Scarlet Honolulu owner Robbie Baldwin.
Scarlet Honolulu co-owner Robbie Baldwin has sued the Honolulu Liquor Commission, alleging the agency’s enforcement actions against the bar amount to civil rights violations. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Bar owners and operators who spoke to Civil Beat for this story say they’re concerned about bringing more trouble down on themselves if they speak up.

“What we’ve seen is if we complain or go on the news about it, we get blasted with more inspections,” said one bar owner who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation by the commission.

City officials have heard plenty, too.

“It’s not just one group that’s complaining about them overstepping their authority,” Honolulu City Council member Andria Tupola said of the Liquor Commission. “Where is the check and balance for that?”

While executive agencies like the Liquor Commission generally operate independently, there may be an opportunity for council members and Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi to rein the commission in after some say it ran amok when enforcing Covid-19 restrictions.

Two recent departures have created openings at the top. To fill one of the vacancies, which is on the five-member board that oversees the commission and presides over hearings, Blangiardi has tapped Seth Buckley, a local attorney who specializes in working with small businesses. Buckley’s nomination is scheduled to go before the City Council for a vote on July 6.

Meanwhile, the commission’s administrator, Don Pacarro, quietly stepped down after nearly eight years to join the Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney’s Office in April. Since then, the position has been filled in temporarily by Anna Hirai, who has worked for the commission for more than 20 years.

Although the five-member commission — and not Blangiardi — will hire Pacarro’s replacement, Blangiardi spokesman Ian Scheuring said the mayor can make sure his appointees share his vision of how government should operate.

“The mayor understands and appreciates that each commission operates independently, but given the responsibility that those commissions have to our communities, he also feels that every commission appointee should possess the same values that he looks for in senior members of the City administration,” he said in a statement. “He prioritizes candidates who are committed not just to faithfully serving the public, but to going out of their way to build public trust by operating with objectivity and high integrity in everything that they do.

“All appointees, including Seth Buckley, are vetted by the mayor with that in mind, and we look forward to the impact they will each make on their commissions,” Scheuring said.

Honolulu City Council member Esther Kiaaina.
Honolulu City Council member Esther Kiaaina, who has spoken to bar owners about the Honolulu Liquor Commission, says, “People are not going to want to speak on the record to you because they’re scared.” Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Scheuring said it will be important for Pacarro’s successor to treat bar owners fairly.

“During his time on the Honolulu Liquor Commission, Don Pacarro never directly challenged requests by Mayor Blangiardi and Managing Director (Mike) Formby to conduct objective and impartial investigations,” Scheuring said. “Still, the Administration continued to have concerns about the commission’s investigators’ ability to do so, because of ongoing complaints.”

“The mayor made it clear that investigations were to be conducted in a fair and equitable manner, and that was the only acceptable way the commission could operate moving forward,” he added.

In an interview, Hirai said the pandemic has been a tough time for bar and restaurant owners, as well as the inspectors in charge of enforcing a series of directives issued by Gov. David Ige, Blangiardi and his predecessor, former Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell.

In normal times, the administrative rules the commission enforces rarely change, Hirai said. And when they do change, it’s the result of a deliberative rule-making process.

During the pandemic, Hirai noted, rules governing drinking spots were frequently changing — concerning social distancing, masks, vaccines, testing — and were implemented by executive fiat. Further complicating things, bars without kitchens were treated differently than bars with kitchens. Perhaps the most onerous provision was a rule that allowed Liquor Commission inspectors to shut down establishments for 24 hours upon finding a violation of a Covid-19 restriction.

Hirai said the 24-hour rule was not popular among bar owners, but says it got them to follow the Covid-19 restrictions.

“It was not a punitive thing, it was a remedial thing,” she said. “In that sense it worked. It got their attention, they got their procedures really tight, and that was the end of that.”

Bar Owners Remain Skeptical

Bar owners have a far different perception. Consider Club Rock-Za, the strip club on Kapiolani Boulevard. The nightclub’s attorney, Michael Green, says Club Rock-Za invested thousands of dollars in signage and equipment to comply with Covid-19 restrictions but got cited anyway.

Among the charges, Green said, was that Rock-Za personnel improperly yelled out an alert to patrons and staff that commissioner inspectors had arrived. In the end, Green said, the commission agreed to reduce charges to a $500 fine against a nude dancer who let her Covid-19 mask slip below her nose.

Scarlet Honolulu’s co-owner, Robbie Baldwin, is also skeptical.

“This wasn’t one time, and nothing has changed,” he said. “This has just been continuing and continuing and continuing.”

According to the bar’s lawsuit, the tensions with the commission escalated when bar employees tried to keep out inspectors who were trying to enter a back door without showing proof of vaccination, which the bar required to comply with the Covid mandates.

After Scarlet complained to the commission, the suit alleges, Pacarro initiated an audit of Scarlet requiring it to produce its books for inspection – even though Scarlet had been open for only six nights between July 1, 2020 to June 30, 2021.

When the publication Gay Island Guide wrote about Scarlet’s problems with the Liquor Commission, the suit alleges, the commission turned on the publication by shutting down a daytime event the publication was holding at Waikiki’s White Sands Hotel on grounds that the event was too noisy. The commission also suspended the hotel’s liquor license for 24 hours, the suit says.

A lawsuit alleges that after the Gay Island Guide published an article criticizing the Honolulu Liquor Commission, the commission retaliated by shutting down a daytime event the publication was holding at Waikiki’s White Sands Hotel and suspending the hotel’s liquor license for 24 hours. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Gay Island Guide is also a plaintiff in the lawsuit, which alleges commission investigators have targeted Scarlet and Gay Island Guide because they are LGBTQ+ businesses.

Hirai declined to comment on the lawsuit. But she did say it’s not unusual for establishments to complain they are being targeted.

When a licensee is cited for a violation or even given a warning, she said, inspectors will follow up with another visit as a matter of policy. Also, she said, inspectors tend to frequent places where there are the largest concentrations of bars and patrons, like Waikiki and Chinatown, which she said can create an erroneous perception that places in those locales are being targeted.

Still, Hirai said, the commission is taking a more business-friendly, collaborative approach to regulating enterprises under Blangiardi.

To that end, it has set up an online license application meant to speed up license renewals for its 1,486 licensees, which include retailers and breweries as well as bars and restaurants. By June 21, she said, 1,316 had turned in annual renewal applications and 1,239 had completed the renewal process.

“I believe there is a shift,” she said of the the commission’s posture toward businesses. “It may be slow, with discrete steps. But I can see movement.”

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