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Florida agency will use 150 agents and inspectors to enforce bar, club closures

Some Tampa Bay cops will enforce the governor’s order to slow down COVID-19. Some say they’ll let the Department of Business and Professional Regulation do it.
Flanagan's Irish Pub bar manager Lauren Scymanski, 34, serves a Guiness as patron Richard Slattery, 52, of Dunedin looks on during St. Patrick's Day on Tuesday in Dunedin. Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Tuesday that starting at 5 p.m. all of Florida's bars and nightclubs will be closed for the next 30 days. [CHRIS URSO | Times]

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When Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday announced sweeping new restrictions to close bars and night clubs across the state, he directed Florida’s Department of Business and Professional Regulation to enforce the emergency order.

The state agency said late Thursday it will use 50 inspectors and more than 100 agents to search for violators. And law enforcement agencies across the Tampa Bay area are each taking different approaches.

The Tampa Police Department and the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office are enforcing the order, but law enforcement agencies in Pinellas and Pasco counties will refer complaints to state authorities.

“Any enforcement of this requirement will come from State beverage enforcement administrative authority and not from the Pinellas County Sheriffs Office or other law enforcement entities,” Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri wrote in letters delivered Wednesday to establishments across the county.

The letter asked business owners to voluntarily comply with the orders so law enforcement doesn’t have to take other measures. “We do not expect perfect, just reasonable compliance,” the letter said.

The Sheriff’s Offices in Pasco and Manatee counties also said they will not enforce the governor’s order.

“This will primarily be the function of the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation, but we stand ready to assist them in any way if requested,” Pasco County spokeswoman Amanda Hunter said in a statement. “In addition, if violations are observed, they will be shared with DBPR.”

DeSantis on Tuesday closed all bars and nightclubs for the next 30 days. The governor’s office did not provide details on whether businesses that don’t comply will face fines or other penalties. Specifically, the executive order stated that any business that makes over half its revenue from alcohol sales can no longer sell drinks for the next 30 days.

The Department of Business and Professional Regulation is responsible for licensing and regulating various businesses and professions, such as cosmetologists, veterinarians, barbers and real estate agents.

During the Great Recession, the agency could not keep up with investigating hundreds of complaints against shoddy real estate agents who ripped off consumers. To help reduce complaints, the agency later shifted those cases to investigators who primarily handled complaints against barbers and cosmetologists.

The Department of Business and Professional Regulation inspectors and agents are assigned to 12 districts across Florida.

“We will continue to monitor and assess during this rapidly changing emergency,” spokeswoman Karen Smith said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Tampa police officers and Hillsborough deputies were on the streets Tuesday night, talking to bar and restaurant owners about the state, county and city emergency orders.

Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister said his office will do its part to enforce the policy by educating residents and business owners. He commended DeSantis for closing the bars for 30 days.

“While this new normal we are all experiencing will not be easy,” the sheriff said in a statement, “it is necessary to keep our community safe.”

Tampa police spokeswoman Jamel Lanee’ said the department’s officers did not encounter any uncooperative establishments, and each understood how the emergency closure could help slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. She said the last thing officers want to do is issue citations.

“We were out last night having friendly conversations,” she said. “Everybody complied.”

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