Rick Savage makes donuts in the kitchen of his Sunday River Brewing Co. in Bethel on May 1 to prepare for reopening his restaurant to the public in defiance of the state order. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

BETHEL — Here we go again. 

An Oxford County Superior Court justice has granted a temporary injunction against Sunday River Brewing Co., ordering the business to allow state workers to conduct inspections. 

The justice stopped short, however, of shutting down the business completely, allowing the restaurant to remain open pending a court hearing next month.

The injunction was granted this week at the request of the Department of Health and Human Services, which demanded access to the restaurant in order to conduct an inspection.  

Co-owner Rick Savage gained national attention in the spring when he announced that he would keep his business at 29 Sunday River Road open in protest of Gov. Janet Mills’ executive order issued in response to the coronavirus. 

For a period in May, Savage seemed to be everywhere, making appearances on local TV news and also on national programs such as “Tucker Carlson Tonight” on the Fox News network. Savage also appeared at several gatherings assembled to protest Mills’ order. 

In mid-May, Sunday River Brewing closed briefly after its operating licenses were suspended. At the time, a county justice granted a temporary injunction against Savage’s business, ordering it to remain closed until its licenses to operate are restored. 

This time around, the DHHS had asked that Savage, who co-owns the business with his brother, Ron Savage, be ordered to cease operations at Sunday River Brewing while the inspectors did their work. In his ruling, Justice Thomas McKeon balked at that request. 

“Based on the limited record available to this court,” he wrote, “the department’s motion for (temporary restraining order) is granted in part but is denied with respect to its request to immediately enjoin the defendant from operation. The court finds that at the … stage of this proceeding, when a complete record is unavailable, there is not enough evidence to find that the harm suffered to the department or its interests outweighs the obvious and substantial harm that will befall the defendant if it is forced to immediately cease operations.” 

In his ruling, McKeon noted the many twists the case against Sunday River Brewing has taken in the past five months. 

“Unfortunately,” he wrote, “this case has a long procedural history.” 

On May 1, the DHHS suspended Savage’s license for operating in defiance of the pandemic orders. Two weeks later, the first temporary restraining order was issued. 

“Shortly thereafter,” McKeon wrote, “the parties reached an agreement where the defendant’s license was (to) be restored and the defendant agreed to comply with the department’s requirements for operation during the pandemic. 

“On May 21st,” McKeon continued, “the department again suspended defendant’s license alleging violation of the pandemic requirements and again filed a motion requesting a (temporary restraining order). Before this court had an opportunity to rule, the defendant again agreed to comply with the guidelines. On May 26th, the defendant signed an agreement with the department, promising to comply with the state’s COVID-19 prevention checklist, with a caveat about staff who had trouble with the masks.” 

It was a short-lived peace. 

Over the summer, according to McKeon’s ruling, the DHHS received complaints the Sunday River Brewing was not complying with the pandemic requirements. His license was suspended again and another temporary restraining order was requested. 

On Sept. 4, the court put forth another restraining order, again requiring Sunday River Brewing to follow various guidelines. Employees were to wear masks if they came in contact with any other person. Plexiglas shields were to be put up and customers sitting at tables or on bar stools were required to remain 6 feet apart. 

Shortly after, the Bangor Daily News published a photograph of one of the business owners working without a face covering. When a public health inspector arrived at Sunday River Brewing shortly after, he was turned away by Rick Savage, who at the time was not wearing a mask, according to McKeon’s ruling. 

On Oct. 16, a hearing was held about the allegations that Savage was once again in defiance. Through his attorney, Savage insisted the business is in compliance with the September order — the plexiglas was up, he informed the court. Tables were appropriately distanced and the staff were wearing masks. 

In his ruling, McKeon pointed out that, although he was issuing a new temporary restraining order, he could not determine the extent of Sunday River Brewing’s defiance of the terms of the last one. 

“Wearing a mask can be an annoyance,” McKeon wrote, “but in an effort to comply with the law and as a courtesy to their fellow citizens, thousands of Maine residents wear them in schools, workplaces, stores and homes. However, based on the record to date, this court cannot determine how frequently the defendant’s owners were present without a mask or whether the defendant’s representations of widespread compliance. Without development of a proper evidentiary record, this court cannot properly weigh the degree of risk of COVID-19 transition in these circumstances.” 

However, McKeon acknowledged that the Sunday River Brewing owners’ refusal to allow state officials to inspect the business was likely a violation of the previous court order. 

Since the controversy began in the spring, Sunday River Brewing has been the recipient of well over $100,000 in donations from people across the country who see their battle as a fight against draconian measures put in place since COVID-19 first emerged. In May, Savage said he’d already lost $650,000 in revenue due to being shut down. 

On at least two occasions, state officials showed up at Sunday River Brewing with police as an escort. There were early rumblings that Savage might face criminal charges for his defiance of Mills’ order, but on May 13, Oxford County Sheriff Christopher Wainwright declared that no such charges were expected. 

Sunday River Brewing is being represented by attorney Ted Dilworth, who declined to comment about the case. A hearing to address the DHHS complaints about the business is scheduled for Nov. 6. 

Meanwhile, a federal suit, filed in late May by Savage and three others, is still pending. Filed in U.S. District Court in Bangor, the suit claims that Mills “closed down Maine civil society, effectively placed 1.2 million people under house arrest,” took away the jobs of hundreds of thousands of people and interfered with interstate commerce.

After the Sunday River Brewing licenses were suspended earlier in the year, Savage vowed to keep Sunday River Brewing in operation, saying he would pay any fines that result. 

As of Thursday, Sunday River Brewing was still open for business.

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