The owner of the University of Central Florida area bar that lost its liquor license Monday and became the poster child for state officials’ vow to crack down on coronavirus scofflaws said Tuesday he closed the place weeks ago out of his own concern, and that he is now being made a scapegoat.
The Knights Pub owner Michael D’Esposito disputed statements made Monday in the state’s order to suspend his liquor license, as well as those made Tuesday by Gov. Ron DeSantis and Department of Business and Professional Regulation Secretary Halsey Beshears, that the bar was ever flagrantly violating Phase Two bar-reopening rules.
He also contended, in a statement issued to the media, that photographs the Department of Business and Professional Regulation used to illustrate large crowds at the bar were in fact taken last year, long before the coronavirus crisis.
“As the owner of The Knight’s Pub, I am disappointed in our state and local leaders’ vilification of a small business during these trying times. Yesterday’s false accounts of irresponsible business practices and the circulation of photos from 2019 to mislead the public in the time of COVID-19 are reckless and dangerous to the greater UCF area,” D’Esposito said in the statement.
He intends to fight the suspension.
“Our establishment is now being used as the scapegoat for all COVID-19 cases in the surrounding Orlando area,” he added.
The pub is in the district of Democratic Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, who said his office had received complaints from constituents about how The Knights Pub was managing its business in the first days after it reopened. On the other hand, Smith also confirmed that D’Esposito closed the place voluntarily before the DB&PR cracked down, though Smith did not know the exact date of the closure.
On Monday evening, DBPR officials, citing violations inspectors observed on June 5 and 6, the first two nights the pub was open, suspended The Knights Pub’s liquor license, specifically citing failures to require people to be seated at tables to order drinks. The news broke Monday night.
Early Tuesday afternoon DeSantis and Beshears held a news briefing in Orlando where they held up The Knights Pub as an example of what the state is willing to do to businesses that do not comply with social distancing requirements in the Governor’s Phase Two business reopening orders.
“The Secretary suspended a liquor license from a place here in Central Florida, that was having really big parties, that was just not following the guidelines,” DeSantis said at the news conference at Orlando Regional Health Center Tuesday.
“If you go in and it’s just like mayhem, you know like Dance Party USA, and it’s packed to the rafters, that’s cut and dry. That’s not just an innocent mistake,” DeSantis said. “So I told him (Beshears:) no tolerance for that. Just suspend the license and then we’ll move on.”
At the news briefing, Beshears then mentioned what he called “flagrant violations” at The Knights Pub. Contact tracing, he said, found 13 employees and 28 patrons had contracted COVID-19. “Due to their advertisements, we’ve pulled their liquor license last night. I’ve contacted several sheriffs. We’re going to continue to do this throughout the state.”
D’Esposito denied there were any big parties, mayhem, Dance Party USA scenes, or flagrant violations, insisting he had kept the bar under the 50% occupancy rule.
He also said something that wasn’t at all addressed in the DBPR order or the Governor’s or Secretary’s statements: that he closed the pub on June 8, more than two weeks ago, and it hasn’t been open since.
D’Esposito said he closed the pub voluntarily just three days after the June 5 reopening because he learned of someone who had contracted COVID-19.
“During that time, we limited the number of customers, disinfected all surfaces, and encouraged social distancing in our indoor and outdoor areas,” D’Esposito’s statement said. “On Sunday June 7, when a patron contacted us that they may have come down with COVID-like symptoms following a visit to our establishment, we immediately decreased our staff down on Monday June 8, and then moved to completely shut down on Tuesday June 9. In addition, we proactively arranged for our employees to be tested and disclosed our closure to the public.”
“Unfortunately, despite our limited reopening that was encouraged by our political leaders, our establishment is now being used as the scapegoat for all COVID-19 cases in the surrounding Orlando area,” he added.
Neither the Governor’s office nor the Department of Business and Professional Regulations responded to inquiries sent late Tuesday afternoon about D’Esposito’s statements.