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Baltimore strip club sues mayor, City Council over ban on adult entertainment during COVID

The Penthouse Club in Baltimore wants a judge to lift the city’s ban on adult entertainment during the coronavirus pandemic, saying it infringes on the right to free speech.

TC Entertainment, which operates the club at 615 Fallsway, is seeking an injunction in federal court against the ban, which was enacted by Democratic Mayor Brandon Scott as part of a broad list of closures during his first week in office in December.

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The lawsuit, filed Friday, argues the city is restricting the club’s right to free speech based on the type of services it provides.

“The [executive order] specifically, and unabashedly targets adult entertainment venues,” the lawsuit states. “There is not even an attempt to cloak the [executive order] with any other meaning. All live entertainment is permitted except adult entertainment venues.”

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The lawsuit names both Scott and Baltimore City Council as defendants. Scott’s spokesperson, Stefanie Mavronis, said Monday that the city’s law department is reviewing it.

“Baltimore will continue to make decisions guided by the public health data and will make assessments on a regular basis to determine when it is appropriate to ease restrictions,” she said.

Clubs such as the Penthouse Club closed Dec. 11 when the order signed by Scott became effective. The order called for the closure of “indoor recreational establishments,” including bowling alleys, skating rinks, social and fraternal clubs, hookah lounges and adult entertainment venues. It forced restaurants to bar indoor and outdoor dining and capped the number of visitors to retail and religious institutions, gyms, malls and museums at 25% of capacity.

Since then, Scott has relaxed restrictions on many of the institutions named in the order, reopening indoor and outdoor dining on Jan. 22, for instance. Indoor recreation establishments were permitted to reopen at 25% of capacity — except strip clubs and hookah and cigar lounges. The lounges were allowed to reopen their retail operations at 25% of capacity, but are barred from on-site consumption.

The Penthouse club has been allowed to operate as a bar only, owner Andrew Alley said, suggesting the arrangement is “like saying McDonald’s can open, but you can only sell coffee.”

“There is no justification to signal (sic) out adult entertainment venues above all other forms of live entertainment other than a puritan interest to close such facilities,” the lawsuit argues.

Last week, out-of-work dancers and other employees of the industry held a protest against Scott in front of City Hall. At that event, Alley called Scott’s refusal to lift restrictions on adult entertainment venues “a punishing slap on our faces.”

Alley said some of his employees had taken jobs in neighboring Baltimore County, where clubs can operate at 50% capacity.

The lawsuit is not the first Baltimore has faced as a result of its COVID restrictions, which generally have been stricter than those in much of the rest of the state. In December, the Restaurant Association of Maryland, a Columbia-based trade group, sued the city over the dining ban. The restaurant owners argued they were unfairly singled out for restrictions. A Baltimore Circuit Court judge denied the group’s request for an injunction and eventually sided with the city.

Attorney Joshua Insley, who is representing the Penthouse Club, said the new lawsuit is “entirely different” than the restaurant association’s legal action, which he said relied on a “mishmash of conspiracy theories.”

Thus far, Baltimore and other jurisdictions have been protected by public health exceptions to laws protecting a business’s right to operate, Insley said.

As restrictions have been lifted, particular industries have been singled out, he argued.

“We all know what it’s about. It’s about The Block,” said Insley, referring to the cluster of strip clubs the 400 block of E. Baltimore St. “It’s City Hall’s never-ending war with The Block.”

Insley acknowledged The Penthouse Club is not on The Block. It’s about five blocks to the north. But he said the restrictions are about targeting The Block, which is near City Hall downtown. Over the years, city officials have sought to reduce crime there via zoning changes and police raids, particularly in the 1990s.

“The problem they have is now it’s not a public health reason,” Insley said of the current executive order. “You can’t use COVID as a cover to go after your own beefs.”

The Penthouse Club has taken measures to ensure clientele social distance inside the club, Insley said. Tables and chairs are spaced out, mirroring the “standard depressing COVID restaurant interior,” he said. If the ban on adult entertainment is lifted, dancers would perform at least 6 feet from patrons, and cables would be installed around dancers’ cages to keep patrons back, he said.

“It’s a little wonky, but whatever,” Insley added.

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