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Casta’s Rum Bar is among the latest hospitality businesses to receive a $1,000 citation for violating Phase 2 reopening regulations. An Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration investigator says he found the bar operating after hours on Oct. 1, which comes with a fine for the first infraction.
While this is something of a slap on the wrist, what’s notable about Casta’s Rum Bar is its ownership. The bar is one of three nightlife venues Vinoda Basnayake backs as a principal at Versus. He co-owns the West End spot with Arian Castaneda. Basnayake also backs HEIST and Morris American Bar.
Earlier this month, Basnayake’s plans for HEIST, his downtown nightclub, to partner with The Kennedy Center on a pop-up rooftop lounge fell through. The performing arts venue questioned whether the recurring event, that could host up to 360 patrons, could take place safely and in compliance with the city’s Phase 2 reopening guidelines.
“Our goal was to set the gold standard for a responsible nightlife reopening,” Basnayake wrote in a statement issued Sept. 30, once the Kennedy Center called off opening night set for Oct. 3. “We strongly believe in this concept and will be announcing our reopening date soon.”
Reservations for the pop-up lounge, which sought to be as close as you can get to visiting a nightclub during a pandemic, sold out within 15 minutes. Think bottle service and VIP cabanas, but no DJ, band, dancing, or mingling with anyone outside of your party.
Marketing materials for HEIST X Kennedy Center pop-up lounge initially promised live entertainment, which caused confusion in the nightlife community. Organizers later stated that music would be piped in and a city official argued it was no different than a restaurant.
“We applied for and received all the necessary permits, even hired a third party COVID-19 compliance officer, and got underway to open an outdoor venue pop-up at the Kennedy Center that was in full compliance with all of the city’s guidelines for outdoor reopening,” Basnayake continued in his statement.
He’s familiar with the rules. Basnayake also chairs the D.C. Commission on Nightlife and Culture and sat on one of Mayor Muriel Bowser’s ReOpen DC committees. How, then, did he allow one of his establishments to get dinged by ABRA for failing to follow them?
At the time of the Oct. 1 incident at Casta’s Rum Bar, operating hours for businesses selling alcohol on premises were limited to between 6 a.m. to midnight. The report from ABRA, released to the public Tuesday, details what investigator Mark Ruiz found when he entered the bar at 12:15 a.m. It says he encountered “music playing above a conversational level” and “five individuals sitting at the bar consuming wine and bottles of Modelo beer.”
The report explains that Ruiz visited the bar after the Metropolitan Police Department put in a request for a joint visit with an ABRA investigator. MPD was responding to a noise complaint.
The MPD officer and Ruiz asked to speak with the ABC manager on duty or an owner, also according to the report, which continues to describe the conversation they had with general manager Marlhon Lucero.
“Investigator Ruiz asked Mr. Lucero why there were individuals in the establishment drinking past midnight,” the report reads. “Mr. Lucero advised that the owner did not want paying customers to be asked to leave until they had finished their beverages. Investigator Ruiz informed Mr. Lucero that the mayor’s order and ABRA regulations require all on premises consumption of alcohol to cease at 12:00 a.m. Mr. Lucero stated that he understood.”
That’s not how Lucero remembers it. “The statement attributed to me by Investigator Ruiz about serving after hours is categorically false,” he tells City Paper in an email. “Casta’s refutes factual allegations contained in the report, and intends to take this matter up with the ABC Board.”
Basnayake did not respond to City Paper’s request for comment.