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Pub owner says state used year-old photos to suspend his license for violating social distancing rules

The owner said the state not only got its information wrong, it inflated its claims with old photos so it could use his college bar as an example.

An Orlando pub owner whose alcohol license was suspended Monday for violating the governor’s executive order mandating social distancing in bars and nightclubs is fighting back. He’s accusing the state of conducting a shoddy investigation that relied on 2019 photos as evidence he was crowding customers into his pub near the University of Central Florida.

“My group and I are very discouraged and we feel like we are being scapegoated and victimized,‘' said Michael D’Esposito, owner of the Knight’s Pub. “There was no investigative work that went into this. I didn’t even know we were being looked into until the news broke” Monday night.

The Department of Business and Professional Regulation, which issues the licenses, posted an order temporarily suspending the Knight’s Pub liquor license at 9:30 p.m. Monday, stating that “contact tracing by the Florida Department of Health has determined that at least 28 patrons tested positive for COVID-19,‘' as well as 13 of the pub’s employees.

On Tuesday, Gov. Ron DeSantis traveled to Orlando with Department of Business and Professional Regulation Secretary Halsey Beshears to warn businesses that Beshears would be “the Grim Reaper of business licenses” for any restaurants and bars that violated the state’s rule that they operate at 50% capacity and maintain social distancing.

D’Esposito said the state not only got its information wrong, it inflated its claims with old photos so it could use his college bar as an example to other business owners.

Since March 17, his pub has been open for four days. On June 7, two days after the state allowed bars to reopen, he said a patron contacted him and said they may have come down with COVID-like symptoms. D’Esposito said he immediately told all employees who had been working those days to get tested and stay home.

He opened with a decreased staff on Monday, June 8, but when he learned there was an outbreak in the University of Central Florida area, he decided to shut down again.

“Unfortunately, despite our limited reopening that was encouraged by our political leaders, our establishment is now being used as the scapegoat for all COVID-19 cases in the surrounding Orlando area,‘' he said. The Department of Business and Professional Regulation “called me at 11:05 at night after they had already posted my entire file online.”

The agency was not immediately available for comment.

The governor warned that businesses that flout the requirement to operate at 50% capacity indoors can count on a visit from Beshears.

Before this week, the state had been issuing warnings, Beshears said, and since June 5, when Florida allowed bars to reopen, his department received 106 complaints. Now, DeSantis warned, operators that ignore the mandates will face swift punishment.

“If you go in and it’s just like mayhem, like Dance Party USA and it’s packed to the rafters, that’s just cut and dry,‘' DeSantis said. “That’s not just an innocent mistake.”

In an effort to help health officials track who may have been exposed, D’Esposito said he opened his roster of staff to Orange County Public Health officials but was angry when they conducted an incomplete investigation and pulled photos from the pub’s Facebook page promoting the opening, without verifying that the photos were nearly a year old.

“Patrons were being served alcoholic beverages while not being seated for service and appropriate social distancing measures were not being enforced,‘' the suspension order issued Monday read. It attached a photo from the pub’s Facebook page as “Exhibit A.”

But the photo used in the Exhibit was posted on the Facebook page at 12:45 p.m. June 5, and the bar didn’t open until 3 p.m.

“We’re back, baby! #Publife• DOORS OPEN @3PM• LADIES 21+ FREE TIL’ 4PMFree Beer, Sangria, Truly, Mimosas,‘' the post read. The accompanying photo was date-stamped July 17, 2019.

“When you market a bar or a nightclub you’re never going to show pictures of a bar that’s empty,‘' D’Esposito explained. “You obviously show pictures that look engaging and fun.”

He countered the claims of public health officials and said that on the days they were open, the pub followed the 50% capacity rule. But, D’Esposito admits, the line to get in was crowded and long as the pub had to “turned away hundreds of people that day.”

“The biggest thing I want is to raise the awareness that you can’t focus just on inside your venue, because these lines are going to be a problem too and it was something I didn’t think of,‘' he said.

At a news conference Monday, Orange County Health Officer Dr. Raul Pino referred to the pub and announced they had linked 152 cases “to that specific location.”

On Tuesday, the Florida Department of Health in Orange County told the Orlando Sentinel that “the current indication is individuals visited different establishments in that general area of Orange County, not just the Knight’s Pub.”

Beshears, secretary of the department, said Tuesday the agency had received 106 complaints since June 5 and all but Knight’s Pub were resolved with warnings.

“We are going to issue a warning to those that are trying to do the best they can, but that’s not what we’re talking about,” he said at the Orlando news conference. “Those that were flagrant ... we will be suspending their license.”

Beshears has not responded to D’Esposito’s complaints.

Meanwhile, the owner of one of UCF’s most popular college bars now thinks the way he was treated could have a chilling effect on the willingness of other business owners to cooperate.

“Me and my general manager took a lot of time and effort to work with the health department and they did nothing but punish us,‘' he said. “Knight’s Pub is my main source of income. Financially, I am dying.‘'

D’Esposito said he has now hired a private testing lab that operates a mobile testing lab to test all his employees again. He hopes the state corrects the false information in its suspension order and learns from the episode. He hopes that the Department of Business and Professional Regulation does a better job of communicating and training business owners about what is expected of them and he suggests, “if you’re a leader you lead and wear a mask.”

“This will work itself out because the evidence they have is false,‘' he said. “I’m 31 years old. I’m a young man and this is a learning experience I’ll have the rest of my life. I just hope everyone kicks it up a notch. It will be worth all my stress.”

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@miamiherald.com and @MaryEllenKlas

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