Polk County bar and brewery owners criticize statewide COVID-19 closures. Dan Thumberg with Swan Brewing in Lakeland: “I don’t know when we’ll be able to recover from this.”
This content is being provided for free as a public service to our readers during the coronavirus outbreak. Please support local journalism by subscribing to theledger.com at theledger.com/subscribenow.
LAKELAND — It’s been three weeks since Florida’s bars, breweries and nightclubs were shut down for a second time to slow the spread of COVID-19.
As Polk County cases continue to rise, these business owners are asking why their industry is the one being held accountable. Some fear they have been forgotten as the state’s reopening moves forward.
“Bars have been targeted. We were the first to be shut down,” said Jeannie Weaver, co-owner of Lakeland’s cocktail bar Revival. “Now, all these other businesses are getting the go-ahead for reopening before the bars.”
Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order shutting down bars, breweries and nightclubs at 5 p.m. March 17. It cut St. Patrick’s Day celebrations short.
For three weeks in June, bars and breweries were allowed to reopen at 50% capacity while following social distancing guidelines. No sooner had they opened than an emergency order to immediately close was announced June 26 by Halsey Beshears, secretary of Florida’s Department of Business and Professional Regulation.
Weaver said she learned of the news from a social media post made by Beshears.
“Why am I finding out news from DBPR on Twitter,” she said.
Not a single Lakeland-Winter Haven area bar and brewery owner who spoke with The Ledger said they received any notification to close their business. Devastating word of the second shutdown was spread by word of mouth and social media.
“It’s crazy how we are communicating with businesses who are potentially breaking an executive order and could lose their license to do business,” Julie Townsend, executive director of Lakeland Downtown Development Agency, said. “It’s not the most effective way to communicate your position as a state to the businesses you are trying to regulate.”
This failure to communicate has left Polk bar and brewery owners blindsided by ever-changing regulations, confused and uncertain how to move forward running a business during the pandemic.
“We just honestly feel that it’s been an unfair targeting of our industry,” Johnnie Levin, co-owner of Front Page Brewing Co., said. “Even though we were following the rules, protecting people and being safe, we have to jump through these hoops and change our business model to meet these new rules to reopen our doors.”
Levin and her husband, Bill, opened their craft brewery in Bartow on March 14. Three days before the first COVID-19 case was diagnosed in Polk
“We don’t know what a normal day of business looks like yet,” she said.
Second shutdown order
On June 26, bars and breweries across Polk who had barely been open for three weeks were immediately shutdown based on Emergency Order 2020-09 closing all businesses that sold alcoholic beverages for consumption on premise — bars, breweries, cocktail lounges and nightclubs.
There were nearly 10,000 new COVID-19 cases in the state that day, according to Florida Department of Health reports. At that time, a new all-time high.
“… [S]ome of these cases involving younger individuals are suspected to have originated from visits to bars, pubs or nightclubs who have disregarded the restrictions set forth in Phase 2 of the Smart. Safe. Step-by-Step Plan for Florida’s Recovery,” read the order.
Polk bar and brewery owners say they went to extraordinary lengths to ensure their compliance with the regulations.
“We 100% felt we were able to provide a safe place with proper social distancing,” Dan Thumberg, a partner at Swan Brewing in Lakeland, said. “You had the majority of people in our industry who took it seriously, understood ramifications and worked tirelessly to follow all recommendations and guidelines.”
Swan Brewing removed all bar stools and asked patrons not to congregate around the bar to order. Thumberg said they moved tables to ensure groups sat six feet apart and all drinks were poured into single-use plastic.
“Cleanliness is priority No. 1, 2 and 3 in the brewing world,” Josh Aubuchon, general council and lobbyist for Florida Brewers Guild, said. “I can understand the frustrations and differentiation between a dive bar and a brewery. They are on totally different levels.”
Aubuchon said Florida Brewers Guild has helped provide clarification on state regulations to more than 300 microbreweries across the state. Sanitization is critical, according to Aubuchon, to ensure a safe beer manufacturing process.
Nancy Cooley, owner of Winter Haven’s Carribean Bay Bar, said she also upheld stringent standards. Cooley doubled her daily staff to allow tableside service on her waterfront deck and enact strict cleaning standards.
Weaver said she closed all but Revival’s front door, where a staff member kept a strict count of how many patrons were indoors at any time. Customers were seated at small, separated tables.
“If you are following the rules, why are you being penalized. It’s not like coronavirus is only happening in a bar,” Weaver said.
The state’s emergency order claimed noncompliance was “suspected throughout the state to such a degree to make individualized enforcement efforts impractical.”
Townsend said she doesn’t believe that was true in Lakeland.
“The state needed to do a better job of policing the bad behavior,” she said. “It’s an unfair action to take against those businesses not exhibiting bad behavior.”
Restaurants the new bars
Many of Polk’s bars and brewery owners are furious yet baffled by a change in state regulations on July 1. It lightened its restrictions by allowing businesses with a license to serve food to reopen as a restaurant and sell alcohol.
Restaurants have to show that at least 50% of their revenue comes from selling food, not alcohol, to avoid being labeled as a bar in accordance with state law. That restriction was lifted to allow them to sell freely without requiring customers to also order food.
Previously, the state had allowed breweries or bars to partner with a food truck in June to meet the reopening requirements. Not so fast this time.
“The way it’s written right now only a bar with a restaurant license is allowed to be open,” Thumberg, of Swan Brewing, said. “The only difference is a food component. I never understood a chicken nugget could block COVID-19.”
Levin also said, “Food is not a magic bullet against COVID, having a plate of food next to your beverage will not protect you.”
While a few bars have been lucky enough to already have a food license, many more in Polk do not.
“Restaurants have become the bars,” Townsend said. “At least in terms of where you can drink alcohol in public.”
Is it Irish luck or wisdom
Jack McHugh, general manager of Molly McHugh’s Irish Pub in Lakeland, said the change to allow those with a food license to serve alcohol gave his business a path to reopening on July 11. Molly’s originally started as a restaurant when it opened in 1996.
“I have the old menus stuffed away on file,” he said. “Now that we started serving food, I referenced back to those on a few things.”
McHugh said the family-owned business stopped serving food back in roughly 2003, when Florida’s Clean Indoor Act prohibited smoking in restaurants and other public spaces.
“We were really lucky. Our owner, my mother, has kept our restaurant license active this whole time,” he said.
The sudden change hasn’t been easy. McHugh said he’s spent countless hours digging up old family recipes, testing them, retraining employees in their new roles and managing new expenses.
“We would prefer to be open as a bar as we were,” he said. “I think everyone in every industry has had to adjust to these current times — we’re not different.”
Lost in communication
Soloman Wassef, co-owner of Lakeland Loft and Hookah Palace, said he was hopeful on July 8 when he heard changes to the state’s COVID-19 regulations would allow cigar bars to open and sell alcoholic beverages.
Wassef excitedly posted notice of each business’ reopening on their respective Facebook pages. Then he reached out to Townsend and the Lakeland Downtown Development Agency to get clarification on the state’s requirements.
Instead, he received an email clarifying that the state was making an amendment that would shut down cigar bars again on July 13.
“All these cigar bars in Tampa and Orlando, they are open and serving alcohol. No one is really enforcing the rules,” Wassef said. “Some owners and establishments want to follow the rules and they get punished because of that.”
Meanwhile, Wassef said that his expenses continue to pile up behind closed doors — rent on two locations in downtown Lakeland, the electric bills, cable fees, internet and television contracts, business insurance and even the garbage fee. He estimated it costs him around $16,000 a month.
Right now, he’s operating on money that was stashed away for a rainy day.
“No matter how much money I have that money will eventually run out,” he said.
Wassef said he’s considering seeing if he could obtain a food service license to allow him to reopen. Yet, he has no desire to serve food at Lakeland Loft — he once drafted a menu but decided against it.
“I don’t want to mess with the food,” he said. “We have a lot of nice restaurants downtown, let’s support our local businesses. Go eat, then come have a cigar or a drink.”
Wassef said he prays for the Lakeland community and word that “things can be back to normal.”
Solving the bar shutdown
DeSantis made clear last Monday the state won’t be changing its position to close bars to prevent the sale of alcohol for on-site consumption. The business will have to remain to-go.
Polk’s breweries, bars and cocktail lounges have been left looking for a way to raise money to pay the bills, keep the lights on and doors open.
Aubuchon said Florida Brewers Guild is seeing many of the state’s microbreweries are working alongside food trucks they have close relationships with to share a food license, allowing both businesses to reopen.
“We have this complementary relationship, it makes a lot of sense to say, ‘Hey, can we get on that license because of the way they interact’,” he said.
Thumberg, of Swan Brewing, said he’s working on things, but declined to specify what his plans might be.
“Those of us in our situation without a food service license, it’s going to devastate us. I don’t know when we’ll be able to recover from this,” he said.
The owners of Front Page Brewing in Bartow are considering their options with regards to a food license.
Aubuchon warned that bars or breweries who try to obtain their own individual food license will find the process is generally longer than they would expect. However, he said the state department has been actively trying to help small businesses.
“I’ll tell you truthfully DBPR are working closely with breweries getting licenses or updates to licenses turned around quickly,” he said. “The regulators have been making good faith attempts to help. They don’t want to see businesses shut down or lose anyone. They have been trying to expedite things to help businesses stay afloat.”
Cooley said unfortunately a food license isn’t an option for her standalone Winter Haven bar because it doesn’t have a full kitchen. She’ll have to try to weather the storm.
Brewing up a change
Florida Brewers Guild has been working with state officials in an effort to bring attention to the nearly month-long closure and hopefully provide economic relief, according to Aubuchon.
“Brewery owners have been extremely vocal, they’ve made a lot of noise,” he said. “I’m optimistic we are going to get something for breweries soon.”
Aubuchon said the guild has drafted a list of recommendation changes to the current state regulations:
• Clear differentiation for breweries from bars.
• Offering to limit operational hours.
• Allow for direct alcoholic beverage delivery to consumers.
• A reduction or temporary abatement in licensing fees.
• Permission to direct ship to consumers.
The association doesn’t represent either bars or cocktail lounges. The owners of Revival and Carribean Bay Bar both told The Ledger they have reached out to their private attorneys to find out about their legal options.
Townsend said she will continue to advocate for Lakeland’s downtown businesses by seeking clarification from the state on regulations and pushing for some reconsideration.
“The initial painting everyone with the same brush needs to stop,” she said. “I’ve been pleading with people at DBPR about when will we talk about outdoor seating and allowing bars to use their outdoor seating.”
Creative, forward thinking
While many remain closed, Weaver led Revival into a new venture on July 11. The Lakeland cocktail bar offered customers a chance to buy syrups, bitters, dehydrated fruit and other ingredients needed to make their own drinks at home.
“It’s always been a pipe dream to be creative and help people have their own cocktail experience for cocktail nerds who are bartenders at their house,” she said. “I don’t think I’ll be able to sustain my business based off that.”
Weaver is taking a shot at the venture, though, and making an effort to keep her business afloat until state regulations change or Florida’s COVID-19 numbers start to subside.
Despite having a food license and reopening, McHugh said he believes the downtown Lakeland businesses are largely in it together.
“There’s a lot of anxiety on the part of both bar and restaurant owners,” he said. “Bar owners not sure when they can reopen, restaurant owners not sure if they are going to be shut back down.”
Sara-Megan Walsh can be reached at 863-802-7545 or firstname.lastname@example.org.