ORLANDO, Fla. – Bars across Florida have been up and operating for a few days now after a monthslong closure to stop the spread of COVID-19.
Department of Business and Professional Regulation secretary Halsey Beshears sat down for an interview with News 6 anchor Lisa Bell on Thursday. He said that this time around, he expects more bars and pubs to comply with social distancing rules.
Drinking holes across the state were closed in mid-March when the deadly respiratory illness made its way to Florida. They were allowed to reopen in June as Florida entered phase two but that was short lived.
Up until Monday, bars had been closed for more than two months.
Beshears talked about how coronavirus rules will be enforced, the feedback he’s received from bar owners and patrons and his thoughts on avoiding another shutdown.
Read some highlights from the interview in this Q&A below. Please note, some questions have been shortened or edited:
Lisa Bell: As you know bars across reopened Monday. It got off to kind-of a wet start, fairly quiet with it reopening Monday. How would you say it has been going so far?
Halsey Beshears: I think you know, it’s slow right now. In the meetings we’ve had, and I talked to hundreds of bar owners and breweries across the state after and during these roundtables, they all said they needed three to four days heads up at least. So I think they are just gearing up. This weekend will be the first weekend that we see kind of what happens and how serious they’re going to take it. I do know this: After listening to them and observing them, they know they all have a serious commitment to making health and safety a continued priority in their business. They have to get this right.
Bell: The bars were originally shutdown in March when the pandemic first broke out. They tried to reopen and then were shutdown again on June 26 and have been shut down for months since then. What was the deciding factor in keeping them down for as long as you did?
Beshears: The positivity rates were climbing and there was absolutely something tied to a piece of that. Was it the only factor? No. Was it a big part of it? Absolutely. Would we have had that rise anyway? Probably so. We can armchair quarterback this thing. Hindsight 20-20, there is no playback on this pandemic. We’re writing this as we go. As it rose, we had to do something different. We couldn’t keep control of the crowds that were out there. Closed it down, watched the positivity die off. So now here we are again. We are attacking it different this time and then listening to all the owners. Like I said, they know they have to get it right this time.
Bell: How are you attacking this differently this time?
Beshears: We changed our shift for our (alcohol beverage and tobacco) officers out there. We are going 4 p.m. to 12 a.m. We are patrolling and looking for these hot spots and those places that we know get crowded during specific times. I think taking that proactive approach -- going to those bigger towns perhaps where we know there is a football game or something happening -- if we can do that and then we’ve already reached out before and we’ve asked patrons and other owners and say, ‘Hey, let us know about the egregious people that just don’t care, let us go ahead and tackle that now and suspend those people who are not cooperating.’ We aren’t going to punish all of the good owners out there who are trying to do it right for just a handful.
Bell: Any hot spots in Central Florida you’ll be targeting specifically?
Beshears: Pinellas we’ve had a lot of complaints, Hillsborough we had some complaints, Orange County, that I-4 corridor, which is heavily populated anyway. We’ll look at that. We also have to look at that northeastern corridor but this does not affect Dade, Broward and Palm Beach County right now. So we’re staying out of those counties. We are working with local law enforcement all over the state. I’ve talked to a lot of sheriffs, not every single one, but a lot of sheriffs in the big counties. They’ve been more than helpful and cooperative in helping us find out those places that are overcrowded.
Bell: One of the primary rules is limiting capacity to 50% for indoor areas, is that the primary thing you will be looking for?
Beshears: It’s 50% and seated service and really it’s overcrowding. That’s the biggest thing. You know when you walk into a bar, you walk into an establishment and you see a bunch of people crowded together without social distancing or just giving people space, you know right away the bar owner probably isn’t paying attention to it and we need to pay attention to it ourselves.
Bell: It seems like this could potentially put a bit of a burden on bar owners if they open their doors and say game day they get a crowd, obviously they love to have customers coming back through their doors. It sounds like it’ll be up to them to then shut their doors and tell people not come in if they reach 50%?
Beshears: That is correct. That’s kind-of why I’m reaching out and trying to be public about this, if there are people who are not comfortable going outside and don’t want to be in the public in these crowds, then please stay home. If you have something that attributes to you not being healthy, please stay home and don’t throw stones about these bar owners being open. But on the flip side of that, if you need that social interaction, those patrons that want to go out and want to be in the bar, then by all means and go out have a good time and be respectful of the bar owner. Be respectful of other people and their wishes because that business owner is doing the best he can. We talked to the bar owners about that too, if they have an unruly patron who doesn’t want to cooperate, you need to throw them out.
Bell: Can you police people gathering outside the bars?
Beshears: That is something we’ve been concerned about. We can’t police outside. Outdoors is OK. Look, heat and humidity -- we know that this virus does not work and so a line outside, we’ve had pictures of that, and we go visit that bar and they’re operating within their parameters. We can’t police the city sidewalks per se. That’s why we’re reaching out and telling everyone we can, be respectful of their space. If you’re outside and drinking, be cognizant of it, let’s spread it out. We can’t police the roads, we can only police the establishments.
Bell: Let’s say the cases start spiking again and we see a positivity rate over 10% like we did earlier this summer -- then what?
Beshears: That’s part of what we took from the roundtable. They gave us great ideas of what we can do to control this again so we can avoid another shutdown. I appreciated all those bar owners and breweries that sat down and they tried to be part of the solution rather than complain about the problem. We have those in our back pocket here at DBPR and let’s hope we don’t have to do that. We are going to figure out a way to continue for them to operate in whatever capacity we can and keep the public health and safety at the forefront of our mind. That’s what this is about: trying to find that balance. People have to make a living but also where we can keep Florida citizens safe.
Bell: Would you shut them down if you needed to?
Beshears: You know, I just don’t want to do that. No ma’am, but you can never say never, too. But our governor, I support him, I think he is doing a tremendous job through this. He has said we will not shut down and so by golly that’s what we’ll do. But I think these bars and breweries owners are going to avoid that for us.
Bell: Obviously these bar and brewery owners have taken a huge financial hit and I know you extended the renewal liquor license for three months, which helped them avoid paying some fees. Are you considering giving them a longer extension so they can hold off on paying those to the state?
Beshears: I think we are looking at all options right now. The hospitality industry overall -- particularly the alcohol industry, this portion of it -- they’ve been hit the hardest. I can’t tell you how many horrible stories I’ve heard: people losing their life savings, single mom with two kids that can’t go wait tables. So many things out there that these people couldn’t do because they were closed. We have to a find a way to try and make this right somehow. Deferring that payment was a great idea that the governor had and I’m glad we did that. That came as a direct result of our meetings. Hey, we can’t discount the fees yet but we can defer them. The governor has given me the task of, ‘Hey let’s figure out some way to help these folks out next year.’ There will be some legislative action required but I think we need to try to find a way to make this right.
Bell: I imagine you’ve had inspectors out. What are they telling you?
Beshears: Right now, it’s very quiet. Mondays, Tuesdays aren’t big bar days anyway. All the regular patrons that were out were very excited. I got a dozen text messages or so, “Hey thanks for opening back up. Thanks for letting us back in here.” I love seeing the happy side of it. I think as we move forward people are going to tip toe back into. I think we’re going to be OK.