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‘How are the bars still open?’ State collects 171 complaints from Tampa Bay area

Owners apologize or deny they violated coronavirus restrictions. One who shut down wants to see his scofflaw competitors fined.

In daily conversation and across social media, Floridians are calling one another out over what they see as blatant violations at bars and restaurants of government directives implemented to slow the spread of coronavirus.

“And this is why we can’t get rid of coronavirus,” reads one comment. Another: “15,000 new cases.... what better way to celebrate?” And a common refrain: “How are the bars still open?”

Some people are taking their anger and frustration directly to authorities.

Since June 26, 171 complaints have been filed against restaurants and bars in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties, according to records the Tampa Bay Times obtained from the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation.

The breakdown: 66 mention social distancing, 51 the sale of alcohol, 43 about employees failing to wear masks, 36 about customers with no masks and 35 for businesses over capacity.

Related: A list of complaints filed against bars and restaurants in the time of coronavirus

That is nearly double the 96 complaints reported during the same period in 2019, when food was the main concern. This year, only four complaints involved food. Five businesses received three or more complaints: Ducky’s Sports Lounge and Whiskey North in Tampa, 3 Daughters Brewing and Derby Lane in St. Petersburg, and Crumps Landing in Homosassa.

State officials ordered bar owners to suspend drinking at bars June 26 as the number of coronavirus cases spiked for a second time since the outbreak began in early March. The Business and Professional Regulation secretary, Halsey Beshears, said bars and restaurants flagrantly violating social distancing guidelines could have their liquor licenses pulled.

That hasn’t happened in the Tampa Bay area.

Through July 14, Business and Professional Regulation has conducted more than 20,600 inspections statewide. The department didn’t answer questions about how many fines have been issued.

Related: Ron DeSantis meets with owners of Dunedin’s Black Pearl restaurant

Beshears said in a tweet July 25 he planned to set up meetings with breweries and bars across the state “to discuss ideas on how to reopen.” The meetings would begin Friday.

Dave McGillivray, owner of the Sunset Lounge in Spring Hill, said he hopes the meetings will mean his bar can reopen soon. The business has been shut down since June 26, and he would like to see more enforcement at bars that have managed to stay open. McGillivray said he’s tired of being penalized for toeing the line while his competitors keep crossing it.

“There’s hundreds of people in these bars on Friday and Saturday nights,” he said. “It’s so fricking crowded it’s unbelievable.”

That can be dangerous, said Dr. Marissa Levine, a public health professor at the University of South Florida. Physical activity in a closed space with other people releases droplets that can become aerosolized, increasing the chance of transmitting COVID-19.

Levine said she has gone out to eat once, but she scoped the place out ahead of time.

“I think that’s the kind of homework people need to do,” she said. “What’s the facility doing, is it meeting the requirements and how much opportunity is there for being in close quarters with other people?”

Ducky’s Sports Lounge received seven complaints, the most filed against any restaurant or bar in the region. All but one center on July 13 and 14, when videos posted on social media showed people dancing and largely ignoring social distancing.

Owner Gio Cruz apologized for the out-of-hand crowd in an interview with WFTS, Ch. 28. Ducky’s did not respond to two requests from the Times for further comment.

Whiskey North received four complaints. One from July 19 reported a line out the door, no one wearing masks and a lack of social distancing. Other complaints said Whiskey North was operating as a nightclub. The business is a nightclub, but after the June 26 order Whiskey North posted on Instagram that it planned to reopen as a restaurant.

“Please treat it like a Chilis or Applebee’s,” the post reads, showing a piece of paper with a list of rules for customers.

On Facebook, Whiskey North advertises itself as the No. 1 party in Tampa, and a July 9 video shows a crowd of people without masks dancing close to one another.

Whiskey North did not respond to three phone calls and three emails to the general manager listed on the business’s website. An attorney representing Whiskey North did not respond to an email seeking contact information for a manager or owner of the business.

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In St. Petersburg, 3 Daughters Brewing received five complaints. Each said the brewery was selling alcohol for on-premises consumption June 27 and 28, after the ban on alcohol sales at bars was issued.

The state’s initial order barred businesses that derived more than 50 percent of their revenue from alcohol sales from selling it on-site. But less than a week later, July 1, an amendment to the order allowed bars also licensed to operate as restaurants to stay open. This allowed establishments like 3 Daughters to keep selling alcohol on-site, and many other bars and breweries have applied for licenses that would allow them to do the same.

Mike Harting, CEO of 3 Daughters, said state inspectors have visited his brewery twice since June 26. The inspectors told Harting his business was in compliance.

Derby Lane received three complaints, about overcrowding, patrons wearing masks improperly and failure to social distance. One complainant reported overhearing employees saying a staff member tested positive for COVID-19. Derby Lane spokesperson Alexis Winning said in an email to the Times that the complaints were false.

Inspectors have stopped by Derby Lane three times and found the business in compliance, Winning said. She said the business monitors its capacity and enforces mask-wearing. They have had to ask several customers who refused to wear a mask to leave. Winning said she wasn’t aware of any coronavirus cases among staff.

Crumps Landing in Homosassa received three complaints, filed July 3, July 4 and July 8. They reported people sitting next to one another at the bar without masks and said the business was putting on live music and cornhole tournaments.

Don Hamberg, a manager at Crumps landing, said state inspectors have visited the restaurant at least four times and found it in compliance.

Hamberg said most customers have followed social distancing guidelines. He said he tells patrons that if people don’t follow the rules, Crumps might have to do away with the live music it offers three or four times a week. He said he asks bands to make occasional announcements about keeping their distance while dancing.

Related: Nearly 600,000 Florida electric customers fall behind monthly bills

McGillivray of the Sunset Lounge said people are looking to drink, and restaurants have become the place to do it.

“It’s not like Red Lobster or LongHorn Steakhouse, it’s the in-betweener bars,” said McGillivray, 72, who has owned the lounge and package store next door for 30 years. “These are bars that maybe had a capacity of 100 or 200 people. They’ve become the nightclubs of Florida.”

He has thought about getting a food license to reopen but he got rid of the kitchen years ago when he decided to turn Sunset Lounge into a smoking bar. In Florida, bars that receive no more than 10 percent of revenue from food sales can allow smoking inside.

Customers would be happy to pay $5 for a piece of microwave pizza if it meant the bar could open, McGillivray said. But without a full kitchen, he fears he could lose his license for the liquor store.

The Sunset Lounge is the only bar in Spring Hill that’s still shut down, he said, and his $3,000 monthly rent bill hasn’t stopped. He said his business will only be able to survive staying closed through August.

“It’s not fair that I’m doing the right thing and we’re getting punished for it.”

- Staff writer Josh Fiallo contributed to this report

Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of Derby Lane spokesperson Alexis Winning. It also listed incorrect dates for complaints filed against 3 Daughters Brewing.

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