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Bar owners, workers protest in Clearwater against orders that keep them closed

A Mastry’s bartender said she’s getting social calls at home from regulars and lonely older customers who miss their afternoon cocktail.

CLEARWATER — Since Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered bars and nightclubs to close on March 17 to slow the spread of coronavirus, Mastry’s bartender Marcia Geary has gone through all of her savings.

She immediately filed for unemployment benefits, but the funds have still not shown up, no matter how many times she checks her bank account.

Geary says the shutdown has affected more than her livelihood. Regulars who are used to seeing her daily, as well as older customers who depend on their afternoon cocktail for socialization, have been calling her at home just to have someone to talk to.

“It’s not even all about the alcohol, people need to talk to other people," said Geary, who has worked at Mastry’s in St. Petersburg for seven years."There are people in their 80s who are all alone and going to the bar was all they had."

Protesters gather Wednesday in front of the Clearwater Courthouse downtown to push for the reopening of bars, still closed as part of the state's effort to stop the spread of the coronavirus. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]

As bars entered their 10th week of mandated closures amid the coronavirus pandemic, more than 100 owners and employees protested Wednesday outside the Pinellas County courthouse in downtown Clearwater to demand they be allowed to open their doors. Waving signs to honking drivers along busy Court Street, they shouted their demands to work again.

Bill Ackerman, owner of Quick Red Fox in Clearwater, and Richard Bantock, who said the shutdown forced him to permanently close his Sports Rock bar in Largo, organized a meeting Monday to plan the protest. About 40 gathered at Quick Red Fox to strategize and they spread their message on Facebook for supporters to meet at the courthouse steps Wednesday.

Bars and nightclubs were the first establishments to close after shutdown orders were issued beginning in March. DeSantis allowed restaurants and retail stores to reopen May 4 with limited capacity and social distancing requirements in the first of a multi-phased reopening plan. Salons and barbershops have been back in business since May 11. Gyms were allowed to restart Monday.

Ackerman said bars should be given the same opportunity, with social distancing enforced. In two emails sent jointly to two members of the governor’s communication staff Wednesday, the Times asked when DeSantis planned to allow bars to reopen. There was no immediate response.

“Our bars are as clean as restaurants and we can enforce social distancing just the same, they need to help us and give us a chance,” Ackerman, wearing a Trump 2020 hat, said at Wednesday’s protest. “We’ve got to be able to make a living. People working for us have families."

As of Wednesday morning, the Department of Health reported 2,173 deaths in Florida related to the novel coronavirus. The state’s total count of confirmed infections reached 47,471.

Medical experts recommend people wear masks when in public and avoid non-essential outings. Some have also acknowledged the difficulty in balancing public health and saving the economy from ruin.

“Purely from a public health point of view, it would be good to continue what we’re doing for longer,” Dr. Marissa Levine, director of the Center for Leadership in Public Health Practice at the University of South Florida, told the Tampa Bay Times earlier this month. “But we can’t indefinitely keep people apart. There’s a larger health and well-being to consider.”

Shannon Evans is a single mother of a 7-year-old boy who said she has done accounting work for friends since she was furloughed from her job managing Pub Logix in Largo. The shutdown has also prevented her from opening her new business, Shenanigans bar in Largo.

“The landlord isn’t working with us so I’m having to pay rent for a closed bar that I haven’t even started business on,” Evans said, holding a sign reading, “Single Moms Need to Work!”

The protesters Wednesday cheered at honking cars, waved homemade signs and chanted refrains of “open the bars!”

An RV plastered with a banner advertising the hashtag "#OpenBarsSafelyFlorida circled the courthouse, sparking loud cheers from protesters with its booming horn.

Tina Bell, who has worked at Monkey Bar in Clearwater for two years, said she hoped the protesters’ message is heard.

“I’m trying to feed my family here,” Bell said. “If other places can open with social distancing, we can too.”

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