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‘It’s time:’ Florida brewery owners say industry is safe, ready to welcome community back

St. Petersburg area brewery owners tell Gov. Ron DeSantis of coronavirus hardships

More Florida breweries have been able to open in the past month by obtaining food licenses but others are weeks away from closing, craft beer makers told Gov. Ron DeSantis during a discussion in St. Petersburg this week.

The Florida governor, along with state Department of Business and Professional Regulations Secretary Halsey Beshears meet with brewery and pub owners Thursday to discuss the state of breweries and bars, some of the last Florida businesses to reopen from coronavirus closures.

Bars were first closed in April under an executive order from the Florida governor and then allowed to reopen in early June but on June 26, due an increase in COVID-19 cases around the state, the Florida DBPR issued a new emergency order banning on-premises consumption of alcohol by licensed vendors who derive more than 50% of revenue from alcohol sales.

On July 1, the department amended the emergency order eliminating the 50% sales requirement and allowing any business with a food service license to operate, regardless of alcohol sales.

Green Bench Brewing Co., the brewery that hosted the governor on Thursday, reopened Aug. 21 after obtaining a food license. The brewery was closed for 124 days due to the executive order. Co-founder Nathan Stoncipher told the governor local breweries are ready to welcome people back, safely.

“It’s time, we can do it the right way,” he said.

Green Bench head brewer and co-founder Khris Johnson said in the last six months brewery owners have been forced to lay off staff “who have basically become family.”

Three Sisters Brewing CEO Mike Harting said the brewery had 62 employees in March and by July they were down to four. The business was able to bring back on some workers with federal paycheck loans but he said “that’s not a lasting model” for small businesses.

“As we find a way to to both concur and live with what is this health environment, we need to be extremely concerned about the economic environment, and we have to put people back to work,” Harting told the governor.

Big Storm Brewing Co. co-owner L.J. Govoni said some of their locations were forced to close while others remained open. The brewery also adapted, turning plans for a new 3,500 indoor expansion into an open, outdoor space due to the pandemic.

Several brewery owners at the event explained that the craft beer making process and operating a tap room makes their business already safe, clean spaces for customers.

“Uniquely for brewers in our situation, most of our day is spent cleaning and sanitizing,” Govoni said. “We really, really understand, again, how to instill confidence. And it’s really no different than the brewing of any particular beer and having that consumer know that that beer is high quality, safe to drink.”

Harting echoed that saying the federal and state licensing required for breweries means staff must go through health department certified testing and training.

While craft breweries with multiple locations and distribution have more resources, Govoni said he is concerned for those who don’t have anything to fall back on.

“We fear for some of the smaller groups that aren’t represented here today ... they’ve got weeks left until there’s just no more payroll anymore, you know, PPP money went only so far,” he said, referring to the federal paycheck protection loans. “Really, we’re at an imperative point for this industry, to at least have the opportunity to fight for our life.”

All of the craft brewery owners said they offer more than just a cold drink to their communities and people are in need of spaces to connect again.

“We built this brewery to connect with our community to add something different to our community. To interact and allow people a place to get together with family and friends,” Green Bench co-founder Nathan Stoncipher said.

DeSantis said he hopes to soon lift on-site drinking restrictions imposed on bars and craft breweries.


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