Did Politics Keep Ball & Chain From Reopening? Miami's Joe Carollo Says No

A May 26 amendment to the City of Miami's emergency order blocked Ball & Chain's reopening plans.
A May 26 amendment to the City of Miami's emergency order blocked Ball & Chain's reopening plans. Photo by Phillip Pessar/Flickr
Update, May 29: This story has been updated to include records and a response from the Miami Police Department regarding officers' May 16 visit to Ball & Chain.

Yesterday, the popular Little Havana nightclub and music venue Ball & Chain was gearing up to reopen following a two-month shutdown brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.

Instead, owner Bill Fuller says he was visited by Miami police and code enforcement officers, who informed him of a late-night order signed by recently appointed City Manager Arthur Noriega. The changes to the city's emergency order, signed by Noriega at 9 p.m. Tuesday, specifically excluded bars — even ones that, like Ball & Chain, prepare and serve food.

To Fuller, the last-minute nature of the amendment and the official visit seemed suspicious.

"I do believe that it's suspect," he tells New Times. "I'm not aware of any other business in the City of Miami that's the target of police sitting outside their venue."

In recent years, Fuller has been beefing with City Commissioner Joe Carollo, one of the most powerful men in Miami, after Fuller supported Carollo's election opponent in 2017. Now Fuller questions whether Carollo had anything to do with thwarting Ball & Chain's reopening.

Fuller says he got a call on May 16 from a high-ranking officer at the Miami Police Department (MPD) who informed him that police had received a complaint that his business was wrongfully selling food and cocktails to-go. Fuller says MPD officers were sent to Ball & Chain to investigate, but that when he got his attorneys involved, he was told there'd been a misunderstanding.

MPD records show officers were dispatched to Ball & Chain around 3:30 that afternoon. Officer Michael Vega, a department spokesperson, says no action was taken because the business was in compliance with city laws. Vega says police self-initiated the visit.

"We are assisting Fire Department in checking businesses are following COVID-19 conditions," he tells New Times.

To Fuller, however, the sequence of events was reminiscent of a series of incidents in 2018 that culminated in the bar owner accusing Carollo of staking out his businesses and calling in false complaints. Two days after police came to Ball & Chain, Fuller was alerted to a May 17 story in the Spanish-language newspaper Diario Las Américas in which Carollo blasted Ball & Chain for serving takeout during the coronavirus shutdown.

"It's illegal; they shouldn't sell alcoholic beverages or food because they are a bar and the emergency law says that only places where the majority of sales come from food [can open]," Carollo told the paper, speaking in Spanish.

Fuller says the Diario interview "specifically triangulates [Carollo] to the situation." That led Fuller to question whether Carollo played a role in encouraging Noriega, one of the commissioner's political allies, to amend the city's order in a way that would prevent the bar from doing business.

"That's why I'm suggesting that there's more at hand here," Fuller says.
A City of Miami spokesperson did not respond to a request from New Times seeking an interview with Noriega.

Reached by New Times, Carollo says he and his fellow commissioners received a draft of the amended order from Noriega a few days ago but that he was too busy to read it because he has been distributing food to residents twice a day.

Carollo says he has been critical of Ball & Chain for fulfilling food and drink orders to-go and believes Miami-Dade County guidelines preclude the bar from reopening for food service. The commissioner says he has been irked to see patrons leaving the establishment carrying to-go beers and mojitos, alleging that he has seen some customers drinking the beverages on the street. For now, he supports keeping bars and clubs closed to protect Miami residents from the spread of the coronavirus.

"Bars, taverns, discotheques — they're different than a restaurant," Carollo says. "That's where the virus could be spread to others."

And he denies calling the police about Ball & Chain on May 16 or influencing Noriega's decision to amend the city's guidelines.

"There's no way that the City of Miami or anywhere else is going to create an ordinance that involves hundreds of establishments just for one individual. It's absurd. It really is absurd," he says.

The Fuller-Carollo beef aside, Noriega's eleventh-hour amendment sowed confusion on the local drinking-and-dining landscape.

As a baseline, all of Florida must follow the reopening guidelines Gov. Ron DeSantis laid out in late April, although local governments can enact more stringent requirements.

The state regulates restaurants, bars, and many other enterprises and professions via its Department of Business and Professional Regulation. Ball & Chain and many other bars are classified as both Retail Beverage establishments and a Permanent Food Service establishments, and they have the state licenses to prove it.

On the other hand, Florida's original "Report to Governor DeSantis From the Re-Open Florida Task Force" succinctly drew a line between the two types of businesses, noting that in the current Phase 1 of reopening, "Bars, pubs, and nightclubs that derive at least 50 percent of sales from alcohol should remain closed."

To date, the governor's office has issued no further guidance regarding bars that are also licensed as food-service establishments.

Nor has Miami-Dade County weighed in. The county distinguishes between bars and restaurants, and the former are to remain takeout-only for the time being. Mayor Carlos Giménez's reopening guidelines permit restaurants to provide alcohol service "in accordance with the establishment’s current state beverage license, provided that such service is strictly incidental to the service of food and is from a service bar only."

The piecemeal guidance, and the various aspects of government control at state and local levels, has largely left bar and restaurant owners to decide for themselves, and many taverns across the state have reopened, including establishments in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

And many in the industry have noted the cognitive dissonance of permitting food-service enterprises that serve booze to throw open their doors while booze-service enterprises that serve food may not.
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Jessica Lipscomb is the former news editor of Miami New Times.