By Jim Turner, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Florida’s top business regulator plans to start meeting with bar operators and craft brewers, amid concerns about establishments closing permanently if a state ban on serving drinks for on-site consumption remains in place.
In a tweet Saturday, Department of Business and Professional Regulation Secretary Halsey Beshears said he will begin setting aside time Friday to discuss his June 26 order that banned on-site consumption at bars to try to help stem the spread of COVID-19.
“Next week starting Friday, I’m going to set meetings throughout Florida with breweries and bars to discuss ideas on how to reopen,” Beshears tweeted. “We will come up with a Safe, Smart and Step-by-step plan based on input, science and relative facts on how to reopen as soon as possible.”
Beshears has said the order, which is backed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, would remain in place until the growth in COVID-19 cases starts to decline. The state has become a hotspot for the epidemic, with DeSantis repeatedly pointing to young adults — including those who might congregate in bars — as one of the reasons for the surge in cases.
On Sunday, the state reported an additional 9,344 cases, bringing the overall total to 423,855. The state added 73,808 cases during the one-week period from July 19 to Sunday, while 872 Florida residents died of the disease during the period, according to Department of Health numbers.
DeSantis initially stopped bars and nightclubs from serving alcohol for on-site consumption as part of an emergency order on March 20 to try to help stop the spread of the virus. The order was lifted on June 5 in all but South Florida, which has been hit hardest by the pandemic. While bars were allowed to start serving drinks again, the state limited indoor customer occupancy to 50 percent and allowed only table service.
But Beshears reimposed the ban on onsite consumption in the June 26 order because non-compliance with the safety guidelines in the bar industry was considered too widespread to enforce.
Bar owners have complained, in part, that the order unfairly discriminates against them, as establishments that serve food in conjunction with alcohol are able to remain open. Beshears’ order doesn’t affect restaurants that derive less than half of their gross revenue from the sale of alcohol.
On July 20, members of the craft brewing industry warned Beshears and DeSantis that the industry was in “jeopardy,” as the number of breweries has already started to decrease and “it is our fear that this trend will rapidly accelerate.”
“The vast majority of over 320 small businesses, representing over 10,000 jobs, are existing solely on a ‘to-go’ model for our products — this constitutes less than 10 percent of our collective sales and is an untenable model for our industry,” a letter from the Florida Brewers Guild said.
Some breweries have gotten food licenses, which has allowed them to remain open. But the letter contended the “vast majority” of breweries have been closed in 2020 for more days than they have been open.
“As of the writing of this letter, our internal polling has revealed that we are likely to lose more than 100 breweries permanently if this continues for more than two weeks,” the letter said. “Let us repeat that — more than 100 breweries in two weeks — and with that, nearly a third of the 10,000 jobs supported by our industry.”
Numerous bar owners have filed lawsuits against the state over the order.