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Florida suspends drinking at bars

Florida bar owners were notified Friday through a tweet from Halsey Beshears, the secretary of the Department of Business & Professional Regulation.

As Florida logged another record-breaking number of new COVID-19 infections, state officials on Friday ordered bar owners to stop selling alcohol at their establishments.

The news came shortly after 11 a.m. in a tweet from Halsey Beshears, the secretary of the Department of Business & Professional Regulation.

The new order — and how it was conveyed — was unwelcome news for many Tampa Bay bar owners, most of whom had just recently reopened their businesses following a state-mandated shutdown.

Peri Bandazian, who owns the downtown St. Petersburg bar Saigon Blonde, said she found out about the news from an employee, who saw it on Twitter.

“I don’t know how I’m doing honestly,” she said. “Is this how you announce it? And can’t you give us some notice?”

Bandazian, who just reopened her Central Avenue bar three weeks ago, said getting the news on a Friday afternoon was a shock.

“I just told my employees not to come in — but it’s the weekend, what are we supposed to do? This is our money-making period,” she said. “You have to be open all weekend to pay your rent — this is killing us.”

Like other local bar owners, Bandazian was forced to close her business in early March, when Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered all bars and restaurants to cease operations to help curb the spread of the coronavirus. The state’s gradual reopening allowed restaurants to open on May 4, while bars were closed until June 5.

In a statement sent out Friday afternoon, Beshears said the order was made in response to a sharp rise in cases of COVID-19. On Friday, Florida recorded a new single-day high for coronavirus cases and logged 8,942 new infections over the course of 24 hours, according to state Department of Health data.

“Based on recent increases in COVID-19 cases and non-compliance with previous orders, (the department) has taken action to suspend on-premises alcohol sales at bars,” Beshears said. “(The department) believes this is a necessary step to take to protect public health as we continue working in partnership with industry and health officials to combat COVID-19.”

Related: Florida’s coronavirus spike: 5 things to know

The order states that all businesses that derive more than 50 percent of their revenue from alcohol sales must stop selling alcohol to customers on their premises immediately.

Bars can still sell alcohol in to-go containers. Restaurants that do not rely on alcohol sales for a majority of their revenue can continue to serve seated customers on site, the order states. The order does not mention breweries.

The move comes just days after DeSantis threatened to pull the liquor licenses of bars that didn’t follow the state’s re-opening guidelines. During a Friday news conference in Naples, DeSantis said the order was issued because many people weren’t obeying the state’s reopening guidelines.

“People weren’t following it,” he said. “There was widespread noncompliance, and that led to issues. If folks just follow the guidelines, we’re going to be in good shape. When you depart from that, then it becomes problematic.”

A look at Five Bucks Drinkery, 247 Central Ave., which remains open on Friday, June 26, 2020 in St. Petersburg. "We have a restaurant license. We are a restaurant," owner Josh Connell said. Florida is suspending the drinking of alcohol at bars, according to a tweet from Halsey Beshears, the secretary of the Department of Business & Professional Regulation. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Early response to Friday’s move from local bar owners was mostly negative, especially considering details about the order weren’t immediately provided, leaving them confused.

Jarrett Sabatini, owner of Intermezzo Coffee and Cocktails in St. Petersburg, said he was shocked to see the announcement. He said it will likely mean having to reduce his bar’s hours, from being open seven days a week until 11 p.m. to about half of that. He’s not sure what that will mean for his four employees who only work at night.

”If you’re lucky enough to have made it the past three or four months, it’s a gut punch,” he said.

Inside the bar Friday afternoon, about 10 patrons typed at laptops while drinking from coffee cups. Workers manning the bar, which serves coffee during the day, wore masks, but only a couple of customers had them on or around their necks.

Sabatini, 27, said that while there was a dip in business as a result of increasing coronavirus cases and recent protests against police brutality, overall business was growing and the bar was back up to about 60 percent of its regular revenue.

He criticized the suspension, saying he thinks the Department of Business & Professional Regulation is only focusing on hotspots for the virus. He said the order hurts small businesses like his that are trying to follow health guidelines by spacing out tables and taking other measures to keep patrons safe. He said he thinks the state should have left the decision to local governments.

Customers purchase alcohol to drink outside of the Mad Pub, John's Pass Village, Madeira Beach, Friday, June 26, 2020. According to Mad Pub manager Harry Mullen, management asked people to finish their drinks and leave the indoor area. Customers could purchase drinks to consume in the outside sidewalk area in front of the business. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

Not all bar owners took issue with the new order. Ryan Griffin, who owns Mandarin Heights in Tampa and Mandarin Hide and Trophy Fish in St. Petersburg, said he felt the action was necessary to help curb the spread of COVID-19.

“Even though it’s not great for us financially I think it’s the right move to make sure that everyone is following the social distancing rules,” said Griffin. “With the recent spike I think this is just the safer measure.”

Still, Griffin conceded that the economic fallout could be devastating for those in the bar industry. He pointed out that despite bar owners’ attempts to adhere to all the guidelines, the response to the pandemic has been varied, and many places have had a hard time enforcing social distancing practices with bar patrons.

“It’s hard to compute the six foot social distancing with bar seating,” he said. “Bars by nature have been a congregation point — we can do our best but it’s probably not enough.”

Griffin’s businesses won’t all be affected the same. Mandarin Hide — a cocktail lounge that does not serve food — will take the brunt of the blow, and will sell to-go cocktails only for the time being. Both Trophy Fish and Mandarin Heights are licensed as restaurants, so Griffin said they will continue to operate while adhering to CDC guidelines with outside seating only.

“The damages economically are exponential,” he said. “But you try to do what you can to keep the lights on.”

Earlier this week, DeSantis said businesses that were clearly out of compliance with state rules could count on a visit from Beshears, whom DeSantis called “the grim reaper for business licenses.”

Beshears’ office made an example this week out of The Knight’s Pub in Orlando, suspending the establishment’s liquor license. In Florida, which has a quota on the number of licenses it hands out, that’s a stiff punishment.

The office justified the suspension by noting The Knight’s Pub had repeatedly flouted social distancing rules, packing the bar with patrons. More than 40 employees and patrons tested positive for coronavirus after frequenting the bar, according to local media reports.

In a statement, Michael D’Esposito, owner of The Knight’s Pub, blasted the state’s move.

“Yesterday’s false accounts of irresponsible business practices and the circulation of photos from 2019 to mislead the public in the time of COVID-19 are reckless and dangerous,” D’Esposito said, noting his establishment was open for just three days earlier this month. “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.”

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