State suspends liquor license at restaurant in Burlington County for ignoring governor’s executive order by hosting a large party

The Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control announced Thursday that it has suspended a Burlington County restaurant’s liquor license and its permit to serve alcohol in outdoor areas following a raucous Fourth of July party that violated social distancing requirements and other New Jersey COVID-19 orders.

State officials also will seek to revoke the restaurant’s liquor license in connection with a second incident involving a violation of the public health measures that were put in place across the state to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus.  

Il Portico Ristorante on Route 130 in Burlington City was charged with numerous Alcoholic Beverage Control violations in connection with conduct that took place inside and outside the restaurant the night of July 3 into the early morning hours of July 4 when local authorities responded to complaints of a party with an estimated crowd of 500 people. Multiple law enforcement agencies were needed to ensure that the large crowd safely left the premises.  

In charges issued on July 30, the Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control sought a 145-day suspension of Il Portico’s liquor license for numerous violations of New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy’s executive orders and Alcoholic Beverage Control regulations, including:  serving patrons inside the licensed premises, allowing the consumption of alcohol in outdoor areas beyond the scope of the restaurant’s COVID-19 expansion permit, permitting patrons on premises without masks, and allowing patrons to be served outside of normal business hours. Additional charges seeking the revocation of the restaurant’s liquor license were issued by the Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control on Aug. 25 as a result of Il Portico’s alleged continued violation of executive orders.    

“The actions announced today puts licensees on notice that they will be held accountable if they violate the safety measures in place to protect the public from the unnecessary risk of COVID-19 spread,” Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said. “We will not allow our state’s reopening efforts to be compromised by bar and restaurant owners who conduct themselves with disregard for the laws and regulations of this state.”  

According to documents filed in the case, during the July event that was billed as a “quarantine release party,” Il Portico failed to comply with mandatory social distancing requirements, failed to ensure patrons were wearing face masks, and failed to comply with the prohibition on serving patrons indoors. During the event, Il Portico provided live entertainment inside the restaurant and allowed patrons inside as well, according to filed documents. Il Portico remained open beyond the time limits prescribed in its permit, exceeded its 49-person capacity limitation, failed to keep patrons and groups at least six feet apart, allowed patrons inside the restaurant, and failed to require patrons to wear face coverings.  

In a departmental hearing held on Aug. 21, Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control Acting Director James Graziano ordered an immediate two-week suspension of the Il Portico’s liquor license and its COVID-19 expansion of premises permit, which had allowed the restaurant to serve alcohol on an outside deck adjacent to its licensed premises. The suspensions run concurrently from Aug. 22 through Sept. 4.  

“Il Portico’s conduct on the night in question failed to meet even the minimum standards of reasonable and responsible operation required of an alcoholic beverage licensee,” said Graziano. “Alcoholic Beverage Control requires licensees to conform to the requirements of the permits allowing them to operate outdoors during the public health crisis. Those that fail to do so will lose that privilege.”  

In a follow-up visit on Aug. 14, investigators found that Il Portico again allowed patrons to consume alcoholic beverages inside the licensed premises, according to additional charges issued on Aug. 25.

The new charges seek to revoke Il Portico’s liquor license based on its continued non-compliance with COVID-19 health and safety provisions.

Il Portico is the latest business facing the revocation of its liquor license for COVID-19 violations, but is the first to have its COVID-19 expansion permit suspended for those violations. Covid-19 expansion permits, created in June, are one-time temporary permits that allow establishments to extend their “licensed premises” –the area in which they are permitted to serve alcohol – to include decks, patios, parking lots, sidewalks and other open outdoor areas adjacent or close by their premises. They were created in accordance with the increased outdoor service space permitted under Murphy’s Executive Order No. 150. The temporary permits expire Nov. 30.

Bars and restaurants operating under COVID-19 expansion permits must, among other things, limit capacity to ensure all patrons are six feet apart at all times and ensure that all tables and bar seating are six feet apart in all directions. They must also comply with all other laws and regulations pertaining to the sale of alcohol in New Jersey.

Since March, the Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control has taken action 159 times in response to COVID-19-related violations by licensees. Those actions include notices of charges, fines in lieu of prosecution letters, and warning letters. Two bars, the Post Time Pub in Blairstown and the Mt. Royal Inn in East Greenwich, also face the revocation of their licenses for allowing patrons to consume alcohol inside their premises on two separate occasions in violation of the governor’s executive orders banning indoor dining.