Florida reviews complaints against restaurants, bars amid COVID-19 pandemic

State conducted nearly 40,000 inspections since March 11, reports show

ORLANDO, Fla. – Over a weeklong period in late June, Florida's professional licensing agency received nearly 350 complaints alleging restaurants and bars were failing to protect patrons and employees from COVID-19, records show.

Florida’s Department of Business and Professional Regulation, or DBPR, recently set up a web page where citizens can anonymously submit concerns about establishments that may be violating the rules of Florida’s Phase 2 reopening plan.

Under the governor's executive order, restaurants must operate at 50% of the establishment's indoor capacity or at full capacity outdoors with appropriate social distancing.

Bars and restaurants cannot serve alcohol to patrons for consumption on the premises unless alcoholic beverage sales represent 50% or less of the restaurant's gross revenue, according to an emergency order issued by DBPR on June 26.

According to records obtained by News 6, complaints included a restaurant in Daytona Beach accused of seating patrons at full capacity, an Oviedo restaurant allegedly allowing employees to work despite testing positive for COVID-19, and a Titusville restaurant that reportedly was operating at nearly full capacity and allowing patrons to wait inside for a table.

In the case of the Titusville restaurant, DBPR records show the agency conducted an inspection that same week and confirmed the allegations. During a follow-up visit two days later, the allegation was not observed.

News 6 is not identifying the bars and restaurants that are the subject of citizen complaints since DBPR has not issued sanctions to any of the establishments.

The state agency confirmed it has not issued any actions against any public food service license holders during its nearly 40,000 inspections conducted since March 11.

DBPR suspended the alcohol licenses of two bars, including Knight’s Pub in Orlando, due to an “immediate danger to public health, safety or welfare”, according to state records.

“We are going to issue a warning to those that are trying to do the best they can,” DBPR Secretary Halsey Beshears said at a June 23 news conference. “Everyone that we visited and gave them a warning to, we went back, they complied.”

In one anonymous complaint filed with DBPR, a popular Orlando bar and nightclub was falsely accused of selling alcohol without possessing a restaurant license to sell food.

“We’ve always been a restaurant,” said Steve Watkins, the owner of Stonewall Orlando. “We’ve always had the (restaurant) license in effect.”

In the wake of the pandemic, Watkins said his business stopped operating as a nightclub and has instead emphasized its newly-created food menu of chicken wings, pizza and nachos that allows him to continue serving alcohol under the state's rules.

“We’re not making money. It’s not a big profitable thing,” said Watkins, who also reduced the establishment’s operating hours. “We’re just trying to keep the lights on.”

Patrons entering Stonewall Orlando undergo a temperature check, must purchase food with drink orders and are required to wear a mask when they're not eating or drinking, said Watkins.

Mask-wearing employees frequently wash tables and chairs while providing hand sanitizer to patrons, Watkins said, while keeping attendance well below 50% of the building's capacity.

"The most we've had probably in this establishment at once is maybe 40 people, and our capacity indoors is 260," said Watkins.

The bar and restaurant owner said his 14 employees are grateful that he can keep them working.

“We’re just trying to survive like everybody else,” he said.

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