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Tampa Bay bars and breweries are reopening. How? They’re becoming restaurants.

A loophole in Florida's restrictions on bars and breweries involves getting a food permit.

Joshua Garman didn’t want to open a restaurant. That was never the plan.

The owner of Tampa’s Hidden Springs Ale Works was looking forward to celebrating the business’ five-year anniversary this September — as a brewery and a taproom that served craft beer, not food.

But a growing number of Tampa Bay bar and brewery owners are trying to side-step new statewide restrictions that have suspended the sale of alcohol on-site by becoming restaurants. Or, at least, by getting food licenses that would allow them to act as one.

It’s an increasingly popular response to the latest state-mandated rules around bars and breweries during the coronavirus pandemic. Following a months-long shutdown, a short reopening period and then another ban on selling alcohol, many owners are saying the restaurant route is the only way to keep their businesses afloat.

Green Xs, spaced six feet apart, lead to the entrance of Cage Brewing on Tuesday, July 21, 2020 in St. Petersburg. [ JONAH HINEBAUGH | Times ]

The list of bars and breweries reopening with this provision is growing. Last week, St. Petersburg’s Cage Brewing reopened with a food license, as did nearby Bar@548, on Central Avenue. Other breweries and bars that have either applied for a food license or are in the process of applying include St. Pete’s Pinellas Ale Works and Dunedin’s Caledonia Brewing, Soggy Bottom Brewery and Reboot.

It’s the latest effort for an industry that’s been financially gutted by the pandemic. And many local bar and brewery owners say they feel unfairly targeted by the coronavirus closures.

Related: Florida suspends drinking at bars

Restaurants were allowed to reopen May 4 with capacity limits and other safety protocols, and have not seen further restrictions since. Bars reopened June 5, but were told to stop serving alcohol just a few weeks later, on June 26.

That’s when Halsey Beshears, the secretary of the state’s Department of Business & Professional Regulation, announced on Twitter that bars had to suspend alcohol sales for on-premise consumption. The executive order that followed further clarified that the mandate applied to other businesses like nightclubs and breweries, too.

Beshears said the call was made both in response to a sharp rise in COVID-19 cases (Florida had recently logged another single-day high) as well as non-compliance with preexisting orders from businesses that were violating the strict capacity limits and social distancing mandates.

On Saturday morning, Beshears announced on Twitter that he planned to set meetings across the state with breweries and bars “to discuss ideas on how to reopen.” The meetings would begin Friday.

“We will come up with a Safe, Smart and Step-by-step plan based on input, science and relative facts on how to reopen as soon as possible,” he tweeted.

The exterior of Bar@548. [ JONAH HINEBAUGH | Times ]

The local brewing industry has been vocal about how dire the economic situation is for the state’s 300-plus craft brewers. Earlier this week, members of the Florida craft brewing community penned a letter to Gov. Ron DeSantis and Beshears. This gist: Help us reopen safely or many of us won’t survive.

“The vast majority of breweries (approximately 90 percent) have been closed in 2020 for more days than they have been open,” the statement said. “As of the writing of this letter, our internal polling has revealed that we are likely to lose more than 100 breweries permanently if this continues for more than (two) weeks.”

Many business owners, including Garman, have voiced frustration that while bars and breweries were forced to close, restaurants can remain open. They wonder what serving food has to do with curbing exposure to the virus.

“You can go to (Walt) Disney World but you can’t come to my place and have a pint of beer?” Garman asked. “It’s just astounding. There was a lot of solidarity to it before, but it’s hard to look at our restaurant friends and not be jealous.”

Jillian Lasita, 30, left, gives drinks to Jo Seward, 24, center left, Kris Stanley, 35, center right, and Jackie Roberts, 38, at Cage Brewing. [ JONAH HINEBAUGH | Times ]

Some in the craft brewing industry have argued that breweries have more in common with restaurants than bars or nightclubs.

“Safety is always a huge concern,” said Josh Aubuchon, a Tallahassee-based attorney and council and lobbyist for the Florida Brewers Guild. “You’re trying to balance the spread of the infection (while) protecting businesses and keeping them open. It’s a rough situation and we want to work together to find a solution.”

Bars masquerading as restaurants, or restaurants acting more like bars, in particular those that have not adhered to social distancing and capacity restrictions, have attracted the ire of local politicians. Last week, businesses with alcohol licenses were put on notice by Tampa Mayor Jane Castor’s administration, and told that if they don’t comply with mandatory mask and social distancing requirements, they could lose their licenses.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there is a higher risk of the coronavirus disease spreading indoors. At Tampa Bay restaurants, employees are required to wear face coverings and guests must wear them when they are not seated at a table and eating or drinking.

Jackie Roberts, 38, points to some of the merchandise on sale at Cage Brewing. [ JONAH HINEBAUGH | Times ]

But bars and breweries haven’t been discouraged by the state from reopening with food licenses. If anything, a small change to the state’s original order has made it much easier. In the initial June 26 order, businesses that derived more than 50 percent of their revenue from alcohol sales were not allowed to sell alcohol on-site, meaning any bar attempting to reopen with a food license would have to effectively operate as full restaurant. But less than a week later, on July 1, Beshears issued an amendment to that order: Now, bars that were also licensed to operate as restaurants could stay open, regardless of the 50 percent mandate.

“They made it a little easier for everyone when they did that,” said George Courtney, who runs the Dunedin bar and arcade Reboot. “It kind of opened the door.”

Courtney, like other bar owners, had just reopened his business when the original order was announced. He tried running the arcade with coffee drinks only, but the customers weren’t biting. To-go sales had taken a steep hit, too, as neighboring restaurants were still open and attracting thirsty customers.

George Courtney, 36, owner of Reboot Arcade & Bar. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

Now, Courtney, who recently got a food license, is selling a small selection of pre-packaged foods in order to keep the doors open. The bar sells snacks like White Castle sliders and Hot Pockets, basically anything he can pull out of the refrigerator or freezer and pop into the microwave.

Courtney said he plans on adding more “legitimate” food in the near future, and has also partnered with nearby restaurant Casa Tina, selling their chips and guacamole to his customers.

“We don’t make much money on it, but it allows us to stay open,” Courtney said.”It gives a chance to survive.”

Applying for a food service license through Florida’s Department of Business & Professional Regulation is fairly straightforward. Most say the application process has been fairly swift, with owners reporting it took anywhere from a few hours to two weeks from start to finish.

Monika Dworakowski, 31, right, of St. Petersburg, and friend Julie Starner, 31, of Dunedin, eat and drink at Reboot Arcade & Bar. The business recently applied and received a restaurant license in order to sell alcohol. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

Most bars and breweries have applied for a permanent seating food service establishment license. According to records from the Department of Business & Professional Regulation, the division of Hotels and Restaurants received 476 permanent food service license applications from Florida businesses in June and 268 applications as of July 21. The cost for the licenses ranges from $242 with no seating to up to $357 for 500 seats or more, according to DBPR’s Director of Communications Karen Smith.

While the requirements for obtaining a food service license requires compliance with a number of health and safety procedures, including proper refrigeration, storage and food-handling, having a kitchen is not a requirement.

At Bar@548 in St. Petersburg, there is a prep area but no kitchen, and owner Michael Kellem said his staff is currently selling composed charcuterie platters, a local smoked fish spread, hummus and pita bread, brownies, muffins and cheesecakes.

Andrew Disparte, 28, of Dunedin plays a game of pinball while wearing a mask Wednesday, July 22, 2020 at Reboot Arcade & Bar in Dunedin. The business recently applied and received a restaurant license in order to sell alcohol. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

Kellem, whose downtown bar is a popular hangout for service industry professionals, said he has considered adding a food menu for a while, but that the pandemic expedited the process.

“It’s been a rollercoaster ride with first off knowing what the rules are and then understanding them and implementing them,” Kellem said. “And basically changing our business plan over and over again.”

Reopening the bar will allow him to keep his 14 employees on payroll, Kellem said, adding that to-go sales weren’t enough to keep the business going for much longer.

“The bills don’t stop just because the doors close,” Kellem said. “There’s still rent, there’s still electricity and insurance ... everything else keeps on running even though the income isn’t there.”

Some businesses have partnered with local restaurants to reopen their doors. Caledonia Brewing owners Hollie Parker and Dawn Dally recently renovated their Dunedin taproom with a kitchenette space and partnered with the owners of Dunedin restaurant the Restorative. The team is launching a new food concept called Side Piece, which opened Thursday at the downtown Dunedin space.

“It was a lot more important to us to fast track it and be open rather than wait it out, because we don’t know how long this is going to last,” said Dally. “We’re both planners and this is killing us, but we’re also learning how resilient we are.”

A bottle of hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes are seen on a table at Reboot Arcade & Bar Wednesday, July 22, 2020 in Dunedin. The business recently applied and received a restaurant license in order to sell alcohol. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

Lucas Rizor, the owner and head brewer at Soggy Bottom Brewing Company in Dunedin, said he feared without the food permit his business wouldn’t survive another two weeks. He said he’s never had any interest in selling food but is now applying for a food license. He bought a pizza oven and plans on selling premade pies from other vendors.

Rizor echoed complaints from his peers in the industry who feel that breweries have been unfairly targeted.

“Breweries are nothing like dance clubs — they function more like a restaurant, if anything,” he said. “What’s the difference if you have a beer at a restaurant with a side of fries as opposed to having just a beer? The virus doesn’t care about that — it doesn’t care about fries.”

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