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Tampa Bay bars had to close today. Will they open again?

Bartenders and owners are reeling after being told to shut down for 30 days due to the coronavirus.
Patrons are seen in Flanagan's Irish Pub for a St. Patrick's Day celebration Tuesday, March 17, in Dunedin. Flanagan's like all bars in the state, closed March 17 for at least 30 days.
Patrons are seen in Flanagan's Irish Pub for a St. Patrick's Day celebration Tuesday, March 17, in Dunedin. Flanagan's like all bars in the state, closed March 17 for at least 30 days. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published Mar. 17, 2020|Updated Mar. 18, 2020

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ST. PETERSBURG — For more than half a century, the Flamingo bar has been open seven days a week, 365 days a year.

On Tuesday at 3 p.m., a crowd of about a dozen people lined the wood-paneled bar. Some wore fuzzy green hats. A spread of corned beef and cabbage had been laid out on a buffet table.

Two hours later the doors were shut, and the regulars were shuffling away. No more $2 Bud Light bottles. No more $2.50 Kerouac specials — a whiskey and a plastic cup of beer. For at least 30 days, but maybe more.

Like every other bar in Florida that makes at least 50 percent of its revenue from alcohol, the Flamingo was under orders from Gov. Ron DeSantis to close at 5 p.m. Tuesday and remain closed for a month to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. Bars that serve food are generally allowed to stay open for now, with different rules in different cities and counties. But your neighborhood bar, that infamous dive, Tampa Bay’s high-end craft cocktail spots? Closed.

According to an order issued by Pinellas County administrator Barry Burton, restaurants and other establishments within the county must stop selling alcohol at 10 p.m. starting on Wednesday. In St. Petersburg specifically, Mayor Rick Kriseman announced that the last call to serve alcohol at any dining establishment is 9 p.m.

On St. Patrick’s Day 2020, things looked much different, at least for the green beer, whiskey shot crowd.

“Here’s to a night of debauchery ... at my house,” toasted a man over a Jameson on rocks at the Emerald on Tuesday. A sign out front read: “Don’t kiss me, I’m Irish.”

For every barfly lamenting the loss of a night out — or a month of them — there were bartenders and bar owners wondering how they’d pay the bills or support their employees.

Josh Connell, who owns the Tamiami, Five Bucks Drinkery and Salty J’s, said he’s not concerned with making a profit right now, but would like to break even and be able to keep his employees working.

“I’ve got a $10,000-a-month rent on the Tamiami, but it’s not just that, we’ve got refrigerators that have to run, we’ve still got to pay Bright House and keep the phone on," Connell said. “You’re paying insurance on a place that you can’t even operate. Altogether, fixed costs are north of $16,000 before the first employee even clocks in.”

He said he has a healthy cash reserve for emergencies, but doesn’t think the outlook is good for everyone.

“Mark my words, there will be bars that never open again,” he said. “Unless the government comes out with some sort of massive assistance, how do you carry on?"

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At the Flamingo, bartender Dawn Vasseva said the bartenders there were “shocked and at a complete loss.”

“I guess my plan is to eat soup for the next 30 days,” she said. “I have no idea what to do."

At 4 p.m. at Green Bench Brewing Company, a bartender in the tasting room declined to be interviewed as the clock ticked down.

“I’d be happy to talk with you, but there’s people who want to buy beer and I only have until 5 p.m. to make any money.”

It’s hard to quantify exactly how many Tampa Bay businesses were forced to close at 5 p.m. March 17. Each county, and each municipality within those counties, classifies and taxes such businesses within its limits, but most were unable to quickly come up with numbers.

St. Petersburg spokesman Ben Kirby said there are 73 businesses classified as “bar, cabaret, lounge or nightclub” in the city limits. That doesn’t include bar-restaurants. Business tax division supervisor Joe Papy said Tampa has 1,120 restaurants and 276 bars. Pasco County assistant tax collector Greg Giordano said there were about 47 bars, lounges, clubs and retail liquor establishments in the county.

Normally, Gulfport closes its waterfront street for St. Patrick’s Day and puts on a block party. Last year, 15,000 people poured into and around O’Maddy’s Bar and Grille. But on Tuesday, for the first time in 25 years, police wouldn’t let manager Joe Guenther close the road — and only about one-tenth of that crowd showed up. Instead of cooking 2,000 pounds of corned beef, workers only made 595 pounds.

“St. Patrick’s is always our busiest day by far. No comparison,” said Guenther, who was hugging friends and shaking strangers’ hands. “We’ve lost about $100,000 just from today. I’m not worried about me, or O’Maddy’s. But I have 85 employees, and this is going to crush them.”

Breweries with public tasting rooms that don’t serve food are included in the order to close for 30 days. Some of them are considering ways to still sell beer to customers, while obeying the order.

Green Bench co-owner Brian Wing said that the brewery, which employs about 30 people, planned to offer limited hours during which they would sell packaged beer to-go. A bartender at Cycle Brewing down the street said they planned to do the same, and would even offer customers the chance to purchase online then pick up.

Stephen Schrutt, CEO of the Hunger + Thirst group that owns the Park & Rec bars in Tampa and St. Petersburg, as well as The Avenue and No Vacancy in St. Petersburg, said because his businesses have kitchens they can stay open for now with reduced hours. Regardless, he said the company has cut staffing down to 10 or 20 percent of what it was before. He’s worried about the spread of the virus, but also his employees’ ability to make a living, and it’s a tough balance.

“I don’t think any owner right now is staying open to benefit financially, because you really can’t make money with only 50 people allowed in your business,” he said. “We’re actually losing money every day we keep our doors open. We’re really only doing it right now for our employees and to make sure the community can get food.”

A bartender mixes a martini for patrons siting at the bar at Enigma lounge.
A bartender mixes a martini for patrons siting at the bar at Enigma lounge. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

Jeremy Fetters, a bartender at Enigma, said he and the other bartenders there have an online group where they’ve been sending each other messages of support.

“We’re like a family, so people are saying things like, ‘If you need help with money or a bill, we’ll help each other get through this.’ ”

Times staff writers Lane DeGregory and Meaghan Habuda contributed to this report.

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