Wine shop owner sues Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, says COVID restrictions destroyed business

By Amy Yurkanin

The Alabama Coat of Arms adorns more than State Trooper’s uniforms. The emblem used by state agencies and offices, including the governor.

The owner of a Huntsville wine shop filed a lawsuit Saturday against Gov. Kay Ivey and Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris, saying her business lost almost $55,000 and had to close due to COVID restrictions.

The business owner, Saranne Riccio, opened Uncorked Wine Shop & Tasting Room in 2018, according to the complaint. Matt Clark, an attorney with the conservative Alabama Center for Law and Liberty, is representing Riccio.

Riccio’s shop in the Providence neighborhood in west Huntsville earned most of its income from wine tasting inside the shop, according to the lawsuit. Business was going well until the pandemic hit in March 2020.

Harris issued a COVID-related health order on March 19, 2020 that prohibited people from eating and drinking in restaurants and bars. Later orders closed non-essential businesses and required people to remain at home except for required trips. The complaint does not challenge mask orders that were issued in the summer of 2020.

Even after Harris and Ivey lifted orders that closed restaurants and bars, distance restrictions remained in place until 2021. Riccio said she received a PPP loan but could only use it to pay employees. The loan funds could not be used for her compensation.

She narrowly avoided bankruptcy by transferring her lease to another business and selling property to a nearby restaurant company.

“She feels fortunate that she was able to avoid bankruptcy, but she knows many other small businesses were not that fortunate,” Clark said. “She filed this lawsuit because she wants to stick up for other small businesses.”

The Alabama Center for Law and Liberty advocates for limited government. The complaint alleges that Harris and Ivey overstepped their authority by issuing public health orders that closed and restricted businesses.

According to the complaint, only the legislature had the authority to define and shut down non-essential businesses. Clark said Ivey should have called a special session to consider pandemic restrictions as the COVID emergency dragged on instead of issuing health orders.

A spokesman for the Alabama Department of Public Health said the agency could not respond to pending litigation. Staff from Ivey’s office also do not comment on lawsuits.

Clark said the Alabama Center for Law and Liberty launched in 2021 and spent most of its first year fighting vaccine mandates. He said this is the first time the organization has had an opportunity to sue over pandemic restrictions.

The lawsuit seeks compensation of money lost due to pandemic restrictions along with attorney’s fees and damages if the court finds Riccio’s rights were violated.

A circuit court judge last year dismissed a lawsuit three Jackson County residents brought against the state concerning the mask mandate. That decision was upheld by the Alabama Supreme Court. A federal judge in late 2020 dismissed another suit against the state over restrictions including the mask mandate.

In an interview in December 2020, Ivey said she regretted shutting down businesses and designating some as non-essential.

“That was a mistake because all businesses are essential,” Ivey said to WTVY. “So, since May, I have absolutely had no conversation about closing any of our businesses because our people deserve to be able to earn a livelihood.”