By Dara Kam, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Citing health issues, Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation Secretary Halsey Beshears said he will step down from his post this month.
Beshears, a former state representative from North Florida who was appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis in December 2018, said in a letter to the governor Friday that he has “been dealing with health issues” for the past two months.
“It is in the best interest of my health, my family, and the department that I focus my full attention on getting well,” Beshears wrote.
Beshears’ agency oversees regulated industries such as gambling, alcohol and tobacco. The agency also handles licensing and regulation for a wide range of professions, including barbers, cosmetologists and real estate agents.
Beshears, a Republican from Monticello, was elected to the House in 2012 and was among DeSantis’ first agency-head selections after the governor was elected in 2018.
When he announced Beshears’ appointment, DeSantis called him a “champion for deregulation.”
“I am proud to have worked under your leadership to remove barriers to employment and increase opportunity for Floridians. From ‘Deregathon’ to passing the most comprehensive regulatory reduction bill in recent history, I believe our efforts will have a significant and long-lasting impact on our great state,” Beshears wrote in Friday’s resignation letter.
Lawmakers last year approved a measure, dubbed the “Occupational Freedom and Opportunity Act,” that made regulatory changes to professions ranging from hair braiders to interior designers and addressed issues such as local regulation of food trucks.
Beshears was in the line of fire last year, as DeSantis and his administration ordered widespread business shutdowns to try to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Bars and drinking establishments were among the many businesses that were shuttered.
Drinking establishments were allowed to reopen on June 5, following an order issued by DeSantis that allowed them to operate at 50 percent capacity while requiring customers to be seated. But three weeks later ,as the number of COVID-19 cases spiked, 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-distancing 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.
Drinking establishments that sold small servings of food, such as Hot Pockets or hot dogs, were allowed to open, while those that only served alcoholic beverages were forced to remain shuttered.
Tavern owners throughout the state hurriedly rehabbed behind-the-counter operations, adding triple sinks, carving out prep areas and signing up for food-handling training so they could get the go-ahead from Beshears 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 Sept. 1, a day after she reopened her business.
But critics of the state’s approach, including tavern owners and regulatory experts, said it didn’t make sense.
“It is 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 of Business and Professional Regulation General Counsel Will Spicola, who also served as director of the department’s Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco, said at the time. “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.”
Bars were allowed to reopen in September.
Beshears also was in the crosshairs as vacation-rental property owners sought to reopen last summer.
After shuttering vacation-rental properties in late March, DeSantis on May 18 lifted the ban for counties outside of South Florida, with a caveat: County officials had to submit proposed rental procedures to the state and get the go-ahead from Beshears before bookings could resume.
The result was a patchwork of restrictions that varied from one county to the next.
“It’s been very confusing. It’s also been very discouraging, because most of us have been just happy with our governor and our state and the fact that it’s very small-business friendly,” Gretchen Kornutik, owner of SunCoast Beach Vacations, told the News Service in June.