BY DARA KAM
NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
TALLAHASSEE — 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.
BARS QUICKLY SHUT DOWN
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.
NO ‘ACCURATE’ TIMELINE FOR REOPENING
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.”
SECRETARY ‘GENUINELY SORRY’
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.