Hot dogs, cold sandwiches and Hot Pockets admittedly aren’t fancy fare.
But low-budget, hassle-free cuisine might be a financial godsend for desperate bar owners who’ve been sidelined for months because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Tavern owners throughout the state hurriedly are rehabbing behind-the-counter operations, adding triple sinks, carving out prep areas and signing up for food-handling training so they can get the go-ahead from state regulators to turn the lights back on.
“I didn’t do anything different but put a damn Crock-Pot on my bar,” Becky Glerum, owner of Paddy Wagon Irish Pub in Plant City, told The News Service of Florida on Tuesday, a day after she reopened her business.
Glerum was able to start pulling beer taps again after she obtained a food-service license from the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, which oversees bars and restaurants.
Bars were among the establishments that went dark in March as Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered statewide business shutdowns in an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus, which causes the respiratory illness known as COVID-19.
Many drinking establishments were allowed to reopen on June 5, following an order issued by DeSantis that allowed bars and other vendors licensed to sell alcoholic beverages to operate at 50 percent capacity while requiring customers to be seated.
But three weeks later as the number of COVID-19 cases spiked, Department of Business and Professional Regulation Secretary Halsey Beshears ordered a shutdown of “vendors licensed to sell alcoholic beverages for consumption on the premises, but not licensed to offer food service.”
Beshears blamed the uptick in coronavirus cases on “younger individuals” who packed into bars, pubs or nightclubs and disregarded social-distance requirements that had allowed the establishments to reopen.
But, departing from ordinary regulations, Beshears did not require that a minimum amount of bar owners’ sales come from food.
Beshears, a DeSantis appointee, has mentioned the food-service license as a reopening option during meetings with bar owners throughout the state, his spokeswoman, Karen Smith, confirmed in an email.
As long as bars are serving dining options as simple as hot dogs boiled in a $13.99 Crock-Pot, the method Glerum is employing, it doesn’t matter how much food they sell.
Critics of the state’s approach, including tavern owners and regulatory experts, say it doesn’t make sense.
“It kind of is ridiculous because the way they’re trying to draw the distinction is, there’s a distinction of selling food versus not selling food,” former department General Counsel Will Spicola, who also served as director of the department’s Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco, said in a telephone interview. “The people that want to go drink are still going to drink somewhere in some fashion, and drawing the line at alcohol is kind of the arbitrary part of this.”
State regulators don’t have the manpower or scientific know-how to manage the situation, Spicola said.
“They’re not in the immunology business,” he said. “Their job is not to do social-distance enforcement. Their job is to do beverage enforcement.”
Under intense pressure from bar owners for a reopening date, Beshears has said they should plan to remain walled off until the end of the year.
Jamie and Sean Dunnigan sunk their life savings into Ollie’s Pub, a small Cape Coral music venue they launched in October.
Jamie Dunnigan, a respiratory therapist, reached out to Beshears several times in August via email, pleading with him for help. The couple wasn’t eligible for any coronavirus-related financial aid because their 48-person-capacity establishment is so new. After getting nowhere, Jamie Dunnigan resorted to sarcasm in an Aug. 24 message to the secretary.
“It seems only fair to help us out if we are being forced to remain closed while all other industries have reopened. That and the fact businesses who didn’t actually need financial assistance received plenty. Can you write to my landlord and ask him to be patient and tell him we’re all in this together? The electric company as well. I’m sure they’ll have no problem with that if it comes from you,” she wrote, demanding an answer about a reopening date.
“Thank you AGAIN for reaching out. Your constant emailing is not helping nor changing the situation,” Beshears responded the next morning.
Beshears said he doesn’t have “an accurate timeline” for reopening.
“So, I will tell you what I know for certain and am comfortable with and I mean this very respectfully and politely since you have demanded an answer to that timeline: Do not expect to open up until January 1, 2021. I feel comfortable telling you that. This way when we open bars before that, you can say I did not lead you on that it would be an earlier date. So manage your finances like you won’t open till next year,” he wrote.
Beshears encouraged the Dunnigans to “look at getting a food service license from DBPR which would allow you to operate as a restaurant temporarily and provide you with some sort of revenue stream.”
The secretary also expressed empathy for the bar owners’ plight, saying he is “genuinely sorry” for the financial hardships the Dunnigans and all small businesses are facing.
“It hurts my heart to no end. I do hope you make it through in the end, and can assure you that if you do, it will be because of your hard work, persistence and will; not because of government assistance or financial aid,” he wrote.
After getting what Sean Dunnigan called “platitudes” from Beshears in a string of emails, the secretary’s “dismissive” final message caused the bar owner to erupt, Sean Dunnigan told the News Service.
Dunnigan, who is in the process of applying for a food-service license, also called the food requirement ridiculous.
“They don’t actually care if you sell food. They just want you to get the license. To us that looks like the state trying to squeeze money out of people who are already hurting,” he said. “We did nothing wrong. We’re suffering because other people didn’t do what they were supposed to do. … They (state regulators) failed to do their job so they made everybody suffer for it.”
The department’s Division of Hotels and Restaurants received a total of 1,657 food-service applications, not including renewals, in August. The agency doesn’t track how many of those applicants also have licenses to sell alcoholic beverages, Smith said.
But the reopening option doesn’t work for everyone.
Seaside Tavern owner Patti Miracle, whose tiny bar is located in a strip mall in Ormond-by-the-Sea, said she doesn’t have the space to comply with food-service requirements. Her lease also restricts her ability to sell prepared food.
Movie theaters, restaurants and schools have reopened, Miracle pointed out in a phone interview. The restrictions on bars don’t make sense, she said.
“Life is back to normal for everyone but us,” said Miracle, who’s among a number of bar owners suing the state over the closures. “I don’t fault any of the bars that are doing whatever they possibly can to survive this. But I’m forced to have to liquidate my assets to survive this.”
Miracle said she turned into an “accidental activist” after bars were shuttered in the spring.
“At the beginning, I was shocked, devastated and confused,” she said. “But now, it’s beyond ridiculous. It’s definitely discrimination. …They don’t want bars that just serve alcohol. They want everybody to serve food.”
Miracle’s lawyer, Jacob Weil, agreed.
“It absolutely is a gimmick. There’s no doubt about that. There’s no differentiation in the way that they’re operating.
It’s simply a way for the Department of Business and Professional Regulation and the governor to look like they’re doing something, which seems to be more important to them than actually doing something,” he said.
–Dara Kam, News Service of Florida
This is idiotic. The State shouldn’t be picking business winners and losers when it’s not based on scientific or medical facts. If a restaurant can operate and serve alcohol, subject to the 50% occupancy, masks and social distancing, so can bars. If the problem is nightclubs and large gatherings of young people, address that specifically. Letting bars open back up because they put a crock pot on the counter and sell hot dogs while paying the State for another license they didn’t want, is crazy.
Instead of processing all of these unnecessary food permits, why not beef up enforcement.
It amazes me some of the dumb decisions that are made at the higher levels of our government.
So all a barroom owner has to do is get a Florida food license, put in some snack foods and he can open his bar? Why does DeSantis allow that when the law says that in order for a bar to be open a certain percentage of sales has to be food? Geesh, now the all the careless and senseless people will pile into these places without masks or social distancing and we start over again.
Here’s the thing. . . if we had government officials that could “think” beyond the end of their noses, they would reasonably conclude that drinking alcohol impedes judgement. That judgement is what helps people to act safely and to protect others.. . . whether the resulting behavior is driving safely or wearing a mask and social distancing. Serving alcohol in ANY publicly accessible building puts us all at a higher risk of spreading this lethal virus that has killed over 140,000 Americans.
The label placed on that building should not make a difference. People getting drunk at a “restaurant” are just as irresponsible at those, getting drunk at a “bar”.
I do not claim to have a solution to this problem, and I do not believe that “prohibition” works in “normal” circumstances. But these are not “normal” times. I just think that virus safety mandates need to address the underlying cause of “unsafe behaviors” beyond the label on a business.
The Voice of Reason" says
Desantis is effectively enabling bar owners to circumvent the intention of the restriction on sales of alcohol in bars. There is good reason for this restriction. Phony food sales defeat the intention of limiting spread of covid. It’s a fact bars are at the top of the list of environments where the virus spreads most easily. Sad but true. Alcohol sales should be stopped in restaurants too. Give tax breaks to bars, restaurants and workers of these businesses to compensate them for lost income. The US easily leads the world in covid deaths. Failure of leadership from trump and desantis and other republicans are to blame. These measures are painful but necessary in the short term until covid is controlled via vaccines and prevention measures like social distancing and mask wearing. Drink at home for now!
None of this is working. All people do is go to the store buy a load of beer and then go to ABC and buy some liquor and everyone meets up at someones home and drink away., I’ve seen some of these ” bars’ that now serve “food”. They need to stick with a can of beer nuts.,
CB from PC says
Opening or operating a business has risks.
The bar and restaurant business in the best of economic times has very low profit margins.
Sorry the timing of the COVID-19 virus unleashed by the Chinese has destroyed the economic prosperity we had going.
The only bright side is that it would have been much, much worse under a Biden Presidency.
I wonder though if the previous non-food bars now ban smoking.
That would be another incentive for people to come in and spend some money.
Probably not healthy being exposed to exhales mixed with the second hand smoke.
Really?Worse under a Biden presidency? How so? We lead the world, by far, in Covid cases and deaths…not even a close second….so how worse could it have really been…explain your logic.
CB from PC says
Fatality rate is 3% based on deaths to cases.
Which means over 97% survive.
I will take those odds any day.
They do set the standard/bar low to qualify a bar as a restaurant. Then again, the bars just pouring alcohol aren’t really doing anyone or the community a service by liquoring up alcoholics anyway. They’re effectively parasites taking advantage of whoever has an addiction that is alcoholism. Legalized drug dealers really. I have a neighbor that 15 years ago was hit by an intoxicated motorist, he’s a mess, totally blind from the moment he was rammed by a drunk driver. I get to see him every day, amazing he still can walk and you kind of wonder, the show that made it all possible, what those people are up to these days ? Lived in Miami, FL for a couple of decades. there’s a club in South Beach, Nikki Beach. Google Tomica, Party Princess and learn about the Nikki Beach, the clubs owner, Nicole Penrod, his daughter was a victim of a DUI too. So if a few bars fail in the reopening, is that really a bad thing ?
CB from PC says
I always say that because people drive loaded, make driving impaired a requirement and revive the behind the wheel test for a Drivers License.
Don’t want to do it?
No problem, sign a “no alcohol” affidavit . Caught with any BAC level while driving is mandatory 1 year jail sentence and permanent forfeiture of driving privileges. Caught again and your ass will not be seeing the light of free sunshine.
Open the bars allready says
This is CRAZY! Our wonderful (not) Governor opens up access to the most vulnerable people to the covid virus there are, THE NURSING HOMES , and he won’t allow the bars to open, WHAT IS HE THINKING?
GOOD. Give people a chance of keeping THEIR business THEIR income and the income of those who work there of surviving.
How about any elected or non elected Government official who makes orders to have privet business shut down also loose ALL their pay and the pay of their direct staff?? How long do you think they would go for that??
Thanks Snapperhead for asking for anything close to facts or reasonable logic from the “usual suspects” who mindlessly post Fox talking points here. Unfortunately and sadly there are those who gave up their thinking and reasoning ability years ago. . . maybe along with their moral compass. Keep asking those questions though, the “lost” need to be challenged and encouraged to wake up to reality, if possible. Sure hoping to see the results of “changed minds” during the election.
CB from PC says
Read my reply.
97% survival rate.
And the ventilator shortage was immediately addressed by manufacturers under the Defense Production Act. Two Hospital ships were sent to both CA and NY. Ban on travel from China where. the Government irresponsibly kept quiet about their screw up, replenishment of PPE inventory NEVER RE-SUPPLIED UNDER THE OBAMA-BIDEN. Administration.
How many more holes are needed before your delusional bubble is burst?
You probably also are oblivious to Democrat Cuomo’s policy of throwing infected COVID patients into nursing homes, causing thousands of deaths.
Gary R says
Excellent comment CB from PC and spot on. Democrats don’t believe in facts only their own narrative. Fox News is number one which means more people are watching Fox News. People watching CNN are not getting the facts.
More mindless posting of more FOX/Breitbart/Drudge talking points! Fox slices and dices numbers. . . How about this one OVER 192,000 DEAD from Covid in the US alone! Thousands of lives needlessly lost due to trump’s complete failure to protect us!!!
Each and every life is PRECIOUS, even if it doesn’t happen to be yours or the life of someone close to you! May YOU never have to suffer or say goodbye to a loved one as a result of your completely despicable callous attitude towards humanity!