The party has started: Tampa Bay bars are open, just not all of them

And the bars still closed are wondering why.
Liquor bottles line the full-liquor bar at the Water Oak Grill on May 13, 2020 in Safety Harbor.
Liquor bottles line the full-liquor bar at the Water Oak Grill on May 13, 2020 in Safety Harbor. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published May 27, 2020|Updated May 27, 2020

If you walked through downtown St. Petersburg or visited Tampa’s SoHo district over the holiday weekend, the scene was enough to tingle your dulled quarantine senses.

Or maybe that was just the bass from the speakers at No Vacancy bumping vibes into the Monday night air along Central Avenue.

That laffy taffy. Girl, shake that laffy taffy.

Arms were slung around shoulders. People bought rounds of drinks, leaned in close and shouted into ears to be heard over the music. They stood, mixing and mingling, laughing and smiling. You could tell because they weren’t wearing masks.

At Anchor’s Bar and Grille in New Port Richey, a more mature crowd danced near the stage and screamed along to a cover band’s Pour Some Sugar On Me. At Bar Hwrd in Tampa, young women stood on their seats surveying the shifting crowd below as electronic dance music pumped.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, many are not comfortable returning to bars or restaurants just yet. But some people are. Enough that, if you squinted a little bit, Tampa Bay’s nightlife looked almost normal in some places on Memorial Day.

Cornhole bags flew across the patio at Park & Rec as people bellied up to the stool-less bar to order signature “dranks." There was even a ballgame on TV. So what if it was a repeat from last season?

It looked cathartic. It looked fun. And it looked scary, depending on where your personal line is for socializing as the pandemic goes on.

Regardless of safety, the party vibes create a strange juxtaposition with the more sobering signs the coronavirus is still with us.

We’ve reached a point where you can order a “rock out with your conch out” (a shared punch bowl of bourbon, fruit juice, Jagermeister and beer served in a suitcase with four straws), but you can’t bury a loved one with military honors, because the Veteran’s Administration has deemed such ceremonies unsafe. They’re asking mourners to watch interments from their cars.

You can get a draft beer and play a round of giant beer pong, but you can’t attend a college or high school graduation, walk into a Fresh Market for a gallon of milk without a mask, or take a road test to get a driver’s license.

Meanwhile, the owners of bars that do not serve food are watching their competitors do business, wondering why they can’t also reopen with the same precautions and limited capacity.

Gov. Ron DeSantis’ phased plan for reopening Florida allowed restaurants and bars making less than 50 percent of their money from alcohol to reopen May 4, though a number of businesses skewing more toward bar than restaurant chose Memorial Day to make their move.

Some bars made sure to emphasize their food options, and some, including several breweries, hurried to bring food trucks on site in order to meet the legal requirements.

Bar owner Peg Wesselink, of the still-closed Room 901 in St. Petersburg, said the 50 percent alcohol sales rule seems like an arbitrary line, since all restaurants and bars are not created equal. The Governor’s order could have considered more specific risk factors, she said, such as whether bars have outdoor seating.

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“Rationally, bar owners are correct in asking why you can drink a beer outside a restaurant, but it’s not safe to do that outside of a bar,” said Wesselink, who holds a doctorate in political science and taught at the University of South Florida before opening her first bar. “But in my experience, public policy has never been fair, and it’s not rational either.”

Cindy Prins, a professor with a background in infection control at University of Florida Health’s Department of Epidemiology, agreed that there are factors, such as layout, air flow and how careful the staff is, that could make the risk level different at every bar and restaurant. “But you can’t weigh the risk for every establishment independently, obviously,” Prins said of the current rules.

Even if the government says we’re allowed to go to bars, she said, “at some point, it’s about weighing the risks and making a personal decision for yourself.” Prins personally won’t go to a bar or restaurant yet, but has opened her circle up to some friends she exercises with, outdoors, keeping a distance.

University of South Florida professor of global health Robert J. Novak said he dined at two restaurants with his wife over the holiday weekend, Texas Roadhouse and Applebee’s. He felt safe because they were following CDC guidelines. He would, however, be wary of visiting a bar right now, mostly because of the way people tend to gather closely with strangers.

“I’m in my 70s, but I spent my fair share of time in bars, and it’s common sense,” said Novak, who was a member of the Review and Research Assessment Committee for the Wuhan Institute of Virology. “You go to a bar to be with your buddies and meet women. People tend to aggregate.”

Novak added that he might go if he could sit outside in the sunlight and be served at a table with plenty of space, “though if the server showed up without a mask, I’d get up and leave.”

Social distancing may have been easier when no one was socializing. During the heart of the lockdown, it felt like FOMO melted away. The anxiety-causing “fear of missing out" wasn’t so bad when there was absolutely nothing to miss out on.

Now there are places to go, friends posting videos from bars and invites that must be accepted or declined.

Before the pandemic, Matthew and Denisse Parks, who run a marketing business in St. Petersburg, went out often with friends. A few days before the statewide stay-at-home order, the couple started isolating completely.

“We actually just went to a restaurant for the first time five days ago, and it was kind of a big deal," said Matthew Parks, 30. They sat outside, and picked up food from a window. It went well. More recently they tried to go to breakfast, but got anxious when the place felt too crowded. They went home and ordered from the same restaurant on Uber Eats.

Parks said they do occasionally see a friend or two at their home or on a walk around the neighborhood, but only if those people are also being cautious. They went to Fort De Soto park with one friend recently. They’re starting to get more invites to go out in downtown though.

“It feels like it’s 50-50. Half our friends are saying ‘I can’t believe people are going out.’ The other half are like, ‘We’re going out, why aren’t you meeting up?'" Matthew Parks said. “We consider things on a case-by-case basis, but we both kind of agreed to wait 60 days after the reopening, and see what’s going on and set new boundaries based on that.”

Related: As people go back out in public, experts weigh in on what's safe

Some took the holiday weekend as a chance to expand what they were comfortable with.

“We had our first family get together on Saturday,” Deborah Kerr, a Tampa-based filmmaker said. Everyone brought their own food, and maintained a six-foot distance. They went swimming, staying apart, until her 8-year-old granddaughter Annie swam up and wrapped her arms around her neck, telling her that COVID doesn’t count in the pool.

"It was the first time I’ve hugged her since February. She held me so tight my petrified heart just melted. I pray to God we escape the virus. The distancing is hurting us, too.”