The bar stools have been removed. Some tables have been taken out, while others have been spaced farther apart. For now, glassware is out and plastic cups are in.
On Monday, two months after he was forced to close his Palm Harbor taproom, de Bine Brewing Co. owner Benjamin Nichols spent the day fixing to reopen. He was more than ready to welcome customers back — at a socially safe distance.
“It’s definitely going to be different,” Nichols said. “I’m excited and nervous at the same time, because you never know how people are going to react.”
Like other craft breweries in the Tampa Bay area, Nichols got the green light to reopen his doors this week.
Since March, breweries have not been allowed to operate for any business beyond to-go sales. Same with bars. The language in Gov. Ron DeSantis’ original order allowing restaurants to reopen at 25 percent capacity specified that “bars, pubs and nightclubs that derive more than 50 percent of gross revenue from the sale of alcoholic beverages” would have to continue to suspend on-site consumption.
DeSantis’ most recent order allowed restaurants — and other businesses like salons, gyms and museums — to open at 50 percent capacity. But still nothing about bars or breweries.
Last week, some local breweries started hearing, mostly through word-of-mouth, that they could reopen if they have a restaurant on site or partner with a food service provider, like a food truck. But many were still unclear on the actual guidelines. Some breweries that serve food, including Clearwater’s Big Storm Brewing, St. Petersburg’s 3 Daughters Brewing and Tampa Bay Brewing Co., have already opened.
In an email to the Times on Tuesday, the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation confirmed that breweries that operate with food on-site may also serve alcohol, as long as they adhere to the same safety measures outlined by the state for restaurants and other food establishments.
The new guidelines suggest that breweries that reopen must adhere to social distancing guidelines. They should limit indoor seating to 50 percent of their capacity, provide outdoor seating with tables spaced at least six feet apart, and restrict parties to 10 people or less. Bar seating is not allowed and guests are also not allowed to congregate in bar or waiting areas.
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During the shutdown, Nichols kept his business afloat by selling to-go packs and growlers of beer. But over the past 60 days, his overall sales still dipped roughly 50 percent. The decision to reopen was a no-brainer. Plus, the brewery already had a barbecue-themed food truck parked permanently on-site.
For other breweries across the Tampa Bay area, the scramble to get a food truck — or figure out some other way to serve food — is on.
Florida is home to approximately 300 craft breweries, roughly 80 of which are in the Tampa Bay area. The coronavirus-induced shutdown has dealt a sharp blow to this local craft brewing industry, which made the majority of its income from taproom and distribution sales. And though breweries have been allowed to sell beer and merchandise to-go in the meantime, those sales represent a fraction of previous revenues, with many places reporting losses of as much as 70 or 80 percent.
Breweries need to reopen soon in order to survive, said Josh Aubuchon, a Tallahassee-based attorney, council and lobbyist for the Florida Brewers Guild.
Aubuchon and other guild members have been pushing for the food truck provision since DeSantis allowed restaurants to reopen. He said the most recent guidelines could help ensure the survival of many small breweries that otherwise might have not been able to reopen.
“A lot of them are really hurting,” he said. "Some of them will take their time, but they want to get back open and back to normal. I think it’s going to be great for the food trucks too, because I think a bunch of them haven’t been open. It’s always been a cool relationship between food trucks and breweries.”
Though the new guidelines are being hailed as a victory by many in the local brewing industry, others said that without a preexisting partnership or relationship, getting a food truck on short notice could prove difficult. Some breweries are already trying to find creative loopholes, from asking local caterers to start serving customers at their taprooms to partnering with nearby restaurants to deliver on-site.
Ryan Sarno, the co-owner of St. Petersburg’s Overflow Brewing Company, called the food truck provision a “step in the right direction,” but said making breweries reliant on a separate business to stay open was problematic.
“It’s requiring a legal and fully compliant business to be bootstrapped to another business based on their time, convenience and reliability,” said Sarno, who does not currently have a food truck at his brewery.
“The issue with that is, what happens if they show up late? What happens if they leave early — are we cut off? What happens if they cancel on us? What are we supposed to do as a business at that point?"
For some, the new allowances represent yet another chasm in the state’s reopening effort, with restaurants and breweries allowed to reopen while bars, nightclubs and taprooms are not.
"Really, I can’t wrap my mind around why everyone else can operate and we can’t,” said A.J. Bubolz, who owns Palm Harbor House of Beer, a taproom that sells local craft brews but doesn’t produce any beer of its own.
Bubolz opened the popular spot in 2010 and sells beer from a long list of local craft brewers. But since his business is technically a bar and not a brewery, the food truck provision doesn’t apply to him. His complaints echo those of many in the bar industry, the majority of which have had to remain closed with little beyond to-go sales to help them survive.
Recently, his to-go business has taken a big hit, Bubolz said, as more restaurants open up and customers who otherwise would have opted for to-go beer are now going back out to restaurants — and now, breweries.
“We’ve seen a steady decline,” Bubolz said. "Every time more restrictions are lifted, we’re getting hit harder. I’d be happy if everyone had to stay closed — I wouldn’t think twice about it. But it just doesn’t seem quite right.”
Unless he can reopen soon, Bubolz said he doubts his business will be able to survive much longer.
“It’s pretty grim. As of right now I think we could probably maybe make it another month.”