September 8, 2020 at 12:08 pm EDT | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
‘SWAT’ team raids Baltimore gay bar after COVID complaints
Baltimore Eagle, gay news, Washington Blade
The Baltimore Eagle was raided last month by agents in body armor, according to its owner.(Washington Blade photo by Chris Jennings)

The owner of the Baltimore Eagle, an LGBTQ leather-Levi bar that has been in business for 30 years, has raised strong objections to what he says was an Aug. 7 raid on his establishment by a dozen representatives of city regulatory agencies who claimed they were investigating a complaint that the Eagle was violating COVID-19 social distancing rules.  

Eagle owner Ian Parrish told the Washington Blade the raid came shortly after he alerted officials with the Baltimore Board of Liquor License Commissioners that he learned that people associated with a competing LGBTQ establishment filed complaints against the Eagle with the liquor board and the city Health Department falsely claiming the Eagle was violating social distancing requirements.

He said his attempt to alert the liquor board and health department about the false complaints apparently did not reach the people who conducted the raid.

Parrish said one of the officials in charge of the agents that conducted the raid, all of whom wore “black body armor,” became angry when he asked to take their temperature as they arrived at the Eagle’s door. Parrish said taking people’s temperature “is part of our COVID-19 protocols for all people entering the premises.”

“’We’re the f[**]king liquor board,’ was their answer to my request,” Parrish said in an email to Maryland State Sen. Mary Washington (D-Baltimore), a copy of which he sent to the Blade. “Then, the horde of the agents in body armor walked through me. I was ping-ponged from side to side as each agent physically pushed me from left to right and back about ten feet as they forced their way past me,” he said in his email to Washington.

“Not only did those agents abuse their authority by assaulting me, they put our patrons at risk by willfully ignoring State of Maryland COVID protocols, and some of them weren’t even wearing masks!” Parrish said in his email message.

“The SWAT style show of force put upon us was grossly out of proportion for the circumstances, it frightened our patrons to the point of them leaving, and the worst part of it was that we were subjected to this gross abuse of authority for absolutely no valid reason,” said Parrish in the email.

Adam Abadir, a spokesperson for the Baltimore City Health Department, responded by email to a Blade inquiry about the concerns raised by Parrish that the Health Department was part of an unnecessary raid on the Baltimore Eagle.

Abadir characterized the visit to the Eagle by the various city agents as an “inspection” that was conducted by members of the Baltimore Social Club Task Force, which consists of several city agencies, including the Health Department, liquor board, and the police and fire departments. He said the inspection visit was prompted by complaints received from citizens that the Eagle was allegedly in violation of social distancing orders issued by Baltimore Mayor Barnard Jack Young to address the COVID pandemic.

Abadir said that at least one of the individuals that filed a complaint against the Eagle sent the Health Department a flier issued by the Eagle advertising a “foam party” scheduled to take place Aug. 7 and 8. The flier, a copy of which Abadir sent the Blade, states: “Throw on your harness and get naughty under piles of safe, antibacterial foam on our social distance patio. Thank you for respecting our COVID-19 guidelines.”

According to Abadir, the task force members determined through their inspection that the Eagle was in violation of a mayoral order issued on Aug. 7 just hours before the Eagle raid that banned indoor operations at bars and restaurants after 10 p.m. He said that during the inspection visit the Eagle’s management immediately complied with the order by moving all indoor patrons to the Eagle’s outdoor space and no penalty was imposed.

Abadir said that due to threats made against members of the Social Club Task Force during past inspection visits to other establishments, the task force members “unfortunately must wear bulletproof vests/flak jackets for their protection.” He said the “body armor,” as Parrish called it, is worn by task force members on all inspection visits and the inspection visit to the Eagle was handled the same as inspections for all other bars, restaurants and other establishments.

Matt Achhammer, a spokesperson for the Baltimore Board of Liquor License Commissioners, provided the liquor board’s explanation of the raid on the Eagle in a Sept. 2 email to Baltimore City Council member Ryan Dorsey. Dorsey asked the liquor board about the raid after being contacted by Parrish.

Achhammer said in his message to Dorsey that the inspection visit to the Eagle was prompted, among other things, by the Eagle’s flier advertising its foam party as well as two complaints about the Eagle from citizens who called the city’s 311 non-emergency services phone line to report the complaints.

“In this case please note that on August 7, though the location had major COVID violations, it was issued a warning,” Achhammer told Dorsey in his email. Achhammer acknowledged Parrish’s concern that multiple executive orders by the Baltimore mayor have created confusion among businesses required to put in place COVID related restrictions and policies.

Parrish said that he later learned that the mayor’s order banning indoor operations at restaurants and bars was issued at noon on Aug. 7, just hours before the raid took place at the Eagle. He said no one from the liquor board or health department contacted the Eagle to inform the club about the revised order.

“There is no reason why a call, a text, an email can’t be sent out to licensees to keep us informed so that nobody is causing an infraction unwittingly,” Parrish told the Blade. He said that at least one of the task force members participating in the Eagle raid acknowledged that the COVID related orders and rules have changed frequently over the past several months, making it difficult for businesses to keep abreast of the changes.

In his email message to State Sen. Mary Washington, a lesbian, a copy of which he sent to the Blade, Parrish said the Baltimore Eagle has a long record of operating as a responsible bar, restaurant, and retail shop. 

“I mention this because in 30 years the Baltimore Eagle has never – not once – never been called before the Liquor Board for any wrongdoing,” Parrish states in his email to Washington. “We are a bar with a very long and verifiable history of community involvement and charitable giving, and we enjoy the formal written support of over 1,200 residential and commercial neighbors of all backgrounds and beliefs, the Charles North Community Association, and the support of 5,000-plus people who follow the Baltimore Eagle on social media,” he said.

Parrish told the Blade the agents participating in the raid never explained to him what the alleged multiple COVID violations were that Achhammer referred to in his email message to Councilmember Dorsey. Parrish said it was possible that Eagle patrons moved closer together than required for social distancing during the confusion that took place during the raid when the agents walked through all of the Eagle’s different rooms and spaces.

“Regarding the presence of foam, that has absolutely no bearing on social distancing or our other COVID-19 protocols,” Parrish said in a follow-up email to Councilmember Dorsey. “[T]he antibacterial soap-based foam has a deleterious effect on the COVID-19 virus, which is one of the reasons why we moved forward with it in the first place,” Parrish told Dorsey.

“So that certainly was not a reasonable impetus for the raid,” he continued. “What was actually relevant about the theme was that it was a threat to a competing venue’s performers to the point they openly discussed in the very same Facebook post their plan to file false complaints – which they did; and again, I personally made the authorities aware of this prior to the raid,” Parrish said in his email.

Parrish said he believes the people who filed what he says were false complaints against the Eagle were drag performers associated with a competing LGBTQ venue. But he declined to identify the competing venue.

“I think this story has a real chance of just touching off more negativity and a bigger problem,” he said. “I’m not trying to point fingers, even though these people really frightened our patrons and affected our business,” Parrish said. “But we’re talking to them since this whole incident. We started talking. We’re really not trying to go backwards and inflame anybody.”

Lou Chibbaro Jr. has reported on the LGBT civil rights movement and the LGBT community for more than 30 years, beginning as a freelance writer and later as a staff reporter and currently as Senior News Reporter for the Washington Blade. He has chronicled LGBT-related developments as they have touched on a wide range of social, religious, and governmental institutions, including the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the military, local and national law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church. Chibbaro has reported on LGBT issues and LGBT participation in local and national elections since 1976. He has covered the AIDS epidemic since it first surfaced in the early 1980s. Follow Lou

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