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Can cigar lounges serve booze? Governor’s order brought cloud of uncertainty

Gov. Ron DeSantis’ order reopening restaurants and retail establishments — but keeping closed bars — left Pinellas officials unsure how to regulate cigar lounges. St. Petersburg’s Central Cigars got caught in the midde.

ST. PETERSBURG — After Gov. Ron DeSantis said earlier this month that restaurants and retail stores could start inviting customers inside again, Central Cigars flung open its doors to people looking for a smoke and a drink.

Instead, on May 9, the first Saturday after the governor’s order, in walked St. Petersburg Police Chief Anthony Holloway.

The cigar shop had been selling alcohol to customers who wanted to drink it there. But the chief, who was enforcing St. Petersburg’s and Pinellas County’s interpretation of the governor’s order, said the shop wasn’t allowed to.

Holloway’s visit kicked off a desperate quest by Central Cigars owner Greg Haddad to get clarity from the state about whether he could sell alcohol in anything but a to-go container. Ultimately, state officials said he could, securing for him and other cigar lounges the certainty to operate all facets of their businesses during the state’s phased reopening from the shutdown in response to the coronavirus.

For public officials, it was the latest example of the challenges they face interpreting and enforcing orders from Tallahassee.

“This has been a difficult time for enforcement in general," said city of St. Petersburg spokeswoman Yolanda Fernandez. In instances when the governor’s orders lack specificity, she noted, each county or city may have slightly different interpretations.

Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri felt similarly: “Just add it to the list of things that the state’s done that lack clarity and make it frustrating for everybody."

Central Cigars, located on the Jannus block of Central Avenue between Second and Third streets, makes most of its money as a retail operation selling smokes, Haddad said. But it also has a bar and sells booze.

DeSantis’ first order on the state’s reopening, which went into effect May 4, allowed businesses licensed as restaurants to invite customers inside their dining rooms at 25 percent capacity and permitted the service of alcohol at tables. It also allowed retail stores to open at 25 percent capacity.

The order still prohibited bars — businesses that make most of their revenue from alcohol sales — from selling alcohol to customers for consumption on site.

Haddad, who said his shop makes about 70 percent of its revenue on the retail side, felt confident he could open. But city and county officials looked at the business, which doesn’t serve food, and saw a bar.

Interpretations and enforcement have been different across the Tampa Bay area. Blue Smoke Cigar Bar in Clearwater and Cigar Cave Lounge in Palm Harbor both said they allowed customers to smoke a cigar and have a drink since they reopened after the shutdown. So did Tampa cigar shops Davidoff of Geneva and King Corona Cigars.

“Somehow, they singled us out," Haddad said.

He enlisted the help of St. Petersburg City Council member Robert Blackmon, who said he made between 75 and 100 calls to state officials to get clarity. Holloway and Mayor Rick Kriseman’s office also sought clarification from the state, but in the meantime stood by their interpretation, referring to the governor’s order on Facebook in response to questions from Haddad.

Reprieve for Haddad, who also owns bar and music venue Ruby’s Elixir and is a co-owner of Flute & Dram on Beach Drive, came May 14. In a statement to the city and county, Halsey Beshears, the secretary of the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, said Central Cigars could sell “any and all” of its products since it is a retailer first and not a bar.

Gualtieri said he thought that guidance contradicted the written order.

“Nowhere in there does it say that a place that does not sell food can sell for on-premises consumption," he said. “So I guess tobacco’s food. I don’t know, I can’t figure it out. Just like I can’t figure out half the other stuff they’re doing.”

He pointed to other directives from Tallahassee that he perceives as contradictory — like the decision to allow breweries to open so long as they bring in a food truck, while traditional bars remain closed.

“The inconsistency abounds," Gualtieri said. "I’ve just thrown my hands up on it.”

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