On Friday morning, Peri Bandazian got the news she had been waiting for: Her application for a food license had been approved. She could open her bar again that evening.
But it didn’t really matter anymore. On Thursday evening, Tampa Bay bar owners were informed they could reopen Monday, food license or not.
Shortly after 7 p.m., Halsey Beshears, the secretary of the state’s Department of Business & Professional Regulation, tweeted that his office would be rescinding a previous order barring bars from selling alcohol on-premise and that beginning Monday they could serve customers at 50 percent capacity.
For Bandazian, the news was bittersweet. Her St. Petersburg cocktail lounge Saigon Blonde has been mostly closed for the past six months, since March 17, the day Gov. Ron DeSantis first ordered all bars in the state to close because of the coronavirus pandemic. She was able to reopen for roughly three weeks in June before bar owners were told — again, through Twitter — that unless they were operating as a restaurant, they’d have to stop serving alcohol, a move that effectively shuttered the majority of bars, breweries and nightclubs overnight.
Since then, Bandazian has taken the route many others in her situation have. She applied for a food service license and went through the steps of building out a restaurant in order to reopen her bar, a process that cost her several thousand dollars. On Friday night, she will open her business for the first time since June, selling customers charcuterie boards, Vietnamese spring rolls and sandwiches to pair with their craft cocktails.
“I never wanted to open a restaurant,” Bandazian said. “But we were already into the process and almost to the end and so we figured we might as well go through with it. I guess it’s a good thing, but it would have been nice if we could’ve opened without it.”
The past six months have gutted Tampa Bay’s bar industry, leaving many to wonder how — if ever — they might recover. Some bars have closed permanently. Many have been vocal about their plight, both to reporters and in roundtable talks with politicians and state regulators, something Beshears said led to Thursday’s announcement.
Travis Walker, a Stuart, Fla.-based attorney who had filed a class action lawsuit against the state on behalf of roughly 100 Florida bar owners, including several in Tampa, said his office issued a subpoena to Beshear’s office Thursday to appear in a trial next week. The multi-count complaint sought to challenge the constitutionality of the state’s former executive order and allow bars to reopen.
Walker said his clients were mostly happy with the reopening news but they are still seeking compensation for the days they have been closed.
“Of course it’s good news that they’re open at 50 percent, but the bars have been through this before,” Walker said. “I think that there is a little bit of cautiousness — I don’t think they are celebrating because they’ve been through this rodeo before.”
Beshears did not immediately respond to a request for a comment on Friday.
When the state’s initial order banning alcohol sales was issued, authorities pointed to the alarming spike in COVID-19 cases in Florida, especially among a younger demographic. The decision to lift restrictions on bars comes as schools have reopened and university students return to campus for in-person learning.
Once they open on Monday, bars must follow the same rules they were tasked with back in June: operate at 50 percent of their capacity indoors with socially distant outdoor seating and bar service that is offered to seated patrons only.
For Julie Bible, the reopening news felt like a slap in the face. Her Tampa nightclub the Pegasus Lounge lost its liquor license after DBPR regulators said the club was violating the social distancing rules and capacity limits, which Bible denied.
After hiring two different attorneys and fighting her bar’s closure, she was able to reopen after 15 days. Bible said she got her license back after she was told there was no probable cause for the suspension.
“I went through all the money, and the process and getting the food license," she said. “I had gotten open and shut down twice and I went through two more attorneys and lost 15 days of revenue and then they say, oh the bars can reopen? After I just invested tens of thousands of dollars?”
In total, Bible estimated she has lost upward of $250,000 since March, a number comparable to what others in the industry have said the nearly six-month shutdown cost them.
“I want to be happy for everybody else but I’m thinking, like, wow I went through all the hoops," she said. "A lot of those bars were already open — they just weren’t caught.”
Ryan Sarno, who co-owns Overflow Brewing Co. in St. Petersburg, said he suspects his business has lost anywhere from $120,000 to $150,000 over the last six months. To-go sales only brought in about $1,000 per month, which wasn’t enough to cover the rent check. Like Bandazian, Sarno was in the process of getting his food license when he got the news that bars could reopen.
Sarno said his plans to serve queso and Hot Pockets have temporarily been scrapped, but that going through the initial steps for the food license might come in handy later on. He doesn’t trust that this is the last time bars will be dealt a blow by the coronavirus pandemic.
“We could be right back into this in the next two months,” he said. “There is an immense fear that it is going to happen again. I really felt like the food license wasn’t for us to open now, it was to protect us for later.”
While many bars had reopened with the food provision, some decided to hold out, although that number shrunk considerably over the past few months.
Doug Dozark, who owns St. Petersburg’s Cycle Brewing, had not reopened with a food license and said he wasn’t planning on it. As a popular, well-established brewery in the Tampa Bay area, Dozark said his business was able to financially survive on wholesale accounts and to-go sales. Even so, the loss of in-person customer sales means the business is only bringing in about 50 percent of its pre-pandemic revenue.
Dozark said reopening on Monday will help bring back a couple of his employees, but he remains cautiously optimistic as to how the pandemic might continue to play out for his industry.
“Even on our tiny staff we’ve had people that have had the virus,” he said. “We’ll give it a weekend, but I want to be responsive to how the staff feels working.”