SOUTH PARIS — A judge ordered Friday that the embattled Sunday River Brewing Co. restaurant and bar in Bethel remain closed until Dec. 11.

Oxford County Superior Court Justice Thomas McKeon also ordered the suspension of the business’ liquor license through Dec. 28 and imposed a $34,000 fine.

The court’s actions come in the wake of repeated suspensions by the Department of Health and Human Services of the restaurant’s license to operate an eating establishment dating back eight months.

Since May, DHHS has suspended Sunday River Brewing’s license five times for violating Gov. Janet Mills’ executive order in response to the coronavirus pandemic, first implemented March 15.

On May 1, the restaurant opened for business despite a statewide prohibition on indoor and outdoor dining in effect at that time.

Co-owner Rick Savage gained notoriety after appearing on national television where he publicly challenged the constitutionality of the governor’s order.

Since that time, Savage and his brother, Ron, have run afoul of DHHS on numerous occasions for violations and operating after license suspension. A DHHS official testified that the restaurant had remained open for more than 100 days without a valid license since May.

On Nov. 23, Justice McKeon ordered the restaurant to remain closed for violations of his temporary restraining order or face fines of $5,000 per day. The restaurant has complied.

Rick Savage, left, and his brother Ron Savage, both of Bethel, sit with their attorney, Ted Dilworth, in his Norway office Wednesday during a videoconference hearing in Oxford County Superior Court in South Paris. A judge heard arguments on whether to keep their Bethel restaurant closed and whether it should lose its liquor license. Christopher Williams/Sun Journal

On Wednesday, the Savage brothers appeared in court by videoconference in an effort to reopen their restaurant sooner than the Dec. 10 expiration of the judge’s restraining order.

Also in court Wednesday, the Maine Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery sought the revocation of the restaurant and bar’s liquor license, introducing dozens of photos showing violations of the governor’s order, most of them illustrating staff’s noncompliance with face mask rules. Liquor inspectors had visited the restaurant undercover, posing as customers, over a period of weeks in an effort to gauge compliance.

Assistant Attorney General Andrew Black, who represented the state agency, also cited the restaurant’s operating with a suspended DHHS license as a violation of its liquor license.

While DHHS can suspend without a court order a business’ license to operate an eating establishment, the state’s liquor licensing agency cannot.

The law gives the judge the discretion to revoke the business’ liquor license for one to five years and to suspend its license indefinitely. The judge also can impose fines of between $50 and $1,500 for each violation, McKeon wrote in his decision Friday.

Ted Dilworth, a Norway attorney for the owners of the restaurant, argued in court that the Savage brothers and the restaurant’s manager had made good-faith efforts to comply with Mills’ order, but asserted the restaurant had been singled out for selective enforcement because of Rick Savage’s public rebuke of Mills.

McKeon wrote that, since the reopening of eating establishments in Maine, DHHS “has issued 58 (imminent health hazard) warnings and 13 temporary suspensions on establishments, other than the defendant’s, over COVID-19 compliance issues.”

Dilworth also noted that closure of the restaurant had put 60 employees, many of them single mothers, out of work.

Several state workers complained of abusive treatment by Rick Savage while seeking to carry out inspections at the restaurant.

Dilworth had proposed Wednesday barring Savage from the restaurant while allowing only his brother to interact with state inspectors if that would enable the restaurant to open earlier than Dec. 10.

In his order Friday, Justice McKeon referenced Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Nirav Shah’s testimony from Wednesday’s court hearing.

Shah said the state had traced 10 COVID-19 outbreaks to eating establishments. He cited a recent surge in deaths — more than 20 over the past two days alone — due to COVID-19 infection.

Indoor dining at restaurants poses unique challenges because people may remove facial coverings while eating and drinking, McKeon noted.

Because Maine has the oldest average population in the state and the elderly are at greater risk of death from the deadly virus, this state is particularly vulnerable, he said.

Shah said “face coverings and social distancing are among the most effective ways to stop the spread of COVID-19,” McKeon wrote in his order Friday.

Black argued Wednesday that the liquor bureau was concerned with public safety.

“The undisputed and compelling evidence submitted at hearing shows that a restaurant’s failure to comply with COVID-19 regulations can result in an outbreak of the coronavirus, causing serious illness or death,” McKeon wrote.

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