As Florida nears six months of the COVID-19 public health emergency, bars and breweries remain some of the last businesses still closed.
For more than a month, new cases have been declining in the state, and Gov. Ron DeSantis has spent this week and last week traversing the state highlighting that businesses are safe and open. Bars, breweries and other nightlife that remain closed or are heavily restricted could soon get the nod to reopen again, the Governor teased.
“It’s one thing to say we may need you to do some of these things for safety and health — and I think you guys would be willing to do it,” DeSantis said, “but it’s another thing to say no, there’s no path to yes. So we’ll get to yes.”
The Governor’s latest roundtable took him to Green Bench Brewing Company in St. Petersburg alongside the Department of Business and Professional Regulation Secretary Halsey Beshears and local brewery owners. Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican and Green Bench shareholder, attended the panel.
Most bars reopened in early June, but Beshears ordered them closed again before the end of the month, citing the spike in cases and noncompliance with the state’s limitations. The following weekend, he apologetically defended the decision on Twitter and attempted to console owners and employees.
“He was getting inundated with stuff, and there was just no way to be able to play like wack-a-mole, which I think was reasonable,” DeSantis said. “I’ve told him, I want every business in Florida operating.”
But whatever rules the state settles on, he added there is “no turning back. We’ve got to get it right, and it’s got to stick.”
Bars must sell food to overcome the state’s hurdles, leading some owners to expand their menus with simple meals like hot dogs and cold sandwiches. They can only operate at 50% capacity and offer only table service.
The Governor and the Secretary have discussed rules for nightclubs and other late-night establishments, DeSantis said.
“I’m not sure the virus is more transmittable at 1 a.m. than it is at 11 p.m., but I guess the theory is maybe people let loose a little bit more,” he added.
VISIT FLORIDA, the state’s marketing arm, announced on Wednesday a new campaign to get Floridians out of the house and spending money again. But DeSantis has been more ambitious, touting plane travel as a safe travel option.
Matthew Dahm, co-founder and CEO of Mastry’s Brewing Company in St. Pete Beach, said he has recently noticed an uptick in out-of-state travelers. Even within the region, which has had a patchwork of local regulations, he’s seen new patrons seeking refuge.
“I think that it goes a little bit back to confidence and many of them coming from states that have a much higher binding regulation and they’re looking for some relief,” he said.
DeSantis again railed against beach closures and policies that kneel to public opinion and that aren’t “evidence-based.”
“From an evidence-based perspective, there is no difference of you sitting down and having a meal or you sitting down and drinking a pint. There’s just not,” the Governor said.
With outbreaks easing in Florida, the Governor’s recent messaging has focused on the tourism, leisure and hospitality industries. Bars and breweries, Beshears added, play a significant role in Florida’s economy.
“It’s the barrier to entry for most people for their first job,” he said. “This touches a lot of people in a lot of different ways.”
Beshears has been meeting privately with craft-brewery and bar owners over the past few weeks.
The Governor also showed sympathy for owners who have struggled amid the closures, admitting that the last six months have been a difficult time.
“It stinks and I’m not happy for how everything’s gone, but I think the best thing we can do is get just get it right and move forward and let’s get the state thriving again,” DeSantis said.
Nathan Stonecipher, a co-owner of Green Bench, said state restrictions have forced the business to be closed for 124 days this year and lay off a number of staff members.
“We built this brewery to connect with our community, to add something different to our community, and to interact and allow people a place to get together with family and friends,” Stonecipher said. “That’s something we want to see back here. We think that we can do it in a safe way. Health and safety is obviously number one for everyone right now in the state of Florida. But there’s no reason that the rest of the hospitality industries in our state can’t get on a path to open up.”
The Governor also announced that Palm Beach County would move into Phase Two, backing the county’s request. He offered no additional details on the change.
The move leaves just Miami-Dade and Broward counties mostly following the Phase 1 standards, which went into place in much of the state on May 4. Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties have by far had the most cases of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus.
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman criticized the Governor for holding the close-quarters roundtable. For the second day in a row, the Governor hosted an event that flouted social distancing and where those who attended did not wear masks even when they weren’t speaking, atypical for his public appearances.
“Here’s an example of what not to do, especially in Pinellas County and St. Petersburg, where our mask mandate & policies have led the way in the fight against COVID. Indoors, no masks, no distancing. We believe in science here, governor. We also believe in leading by example,” the Mayor tweeted.
Here's an example of what not to do, especially in Pinellas County and St. Petersburg, where our mask mandate & policies have led the way in the fight against COVID.
Indoors, no masks, no distancing.
We believe in science here, governor. We also believe in leading by example. https://t.co/Rp1VIbYAAW
— Rick Kriseman (@Kriseman) September 3, 2020
DeSantis’ communications director, Fred Piccolo, shot a barb back at Kriseman 15 minutes later.
“Kriseman should start on the health tip by not dumping tonnes and tonnes of raw sewage into the bay,” he tweeted.