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Florida's New COVID-19 Bar Ban Defies Logic

Florida announced it was suspending the on-premises consumption of alcohol at bars statewide.
Florida announced it was suspending the on-premises consumption of alcohol at bars statewide.
Photo courtesy of J. Wakefield Brewing

Earlier today, Halsey Beshears, secretary of Florida's Department of Business & Professional Regulation (DBPR), tweeted a single sentence that effectively placed bars in Florida into a state of suspended animation.

"Effective immediately, the Department of Business and Professional Regulation is suspending on-premises consumption of alcohol at bars statewide."

Shortly thereafter, Beshears tweeted a link to the text of Emergency Order 2020-09, which reverses the aspect of Gov. Ron DeSantis' June 3 announcement of Phase Two of the state's reopening that permitted bars and pubs to open as of June 5 with diminished standing-room occupancy. Beshears' order further clarified that restaurants may continue to operate as they have been under Phase Two.

Beshears made clear in his order that the about-face was a response to Florida's recent surge in COVID-19 cases.

As with the initial implementation of DeSantis' Phase One, none of this directly pertains to Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties, which were excluded from the governor's bar proviso.

Locally, Miami-Dade's June 8 Amendment to County Emergency Order 23-20 remains in effect, ensuring the ongoing closure of "bars, pubs, night clubs, cocktail lounges, cabarets, and breweries," other than those that are licensed as restaurants.

Today, the Florida Department of Health confirmed nearly 9,000 new COVID-19 cases, with nearly 123,000 confirmed cases to date. Florida's numbers are rising so quickly that the states of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut are requiring Floridians quarantine for 14 days if they travel to the northeast — an ironic response to DeSantis' order that imposed the same restrictions on visitors from those states back in March.

Also today, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott closed down all the bars. Abbott also ordered restaurants to lower their occupancy from 75 percent of capacity to 50 percent. Governor DeSantis' Phase Two order that allowed restaurants in Florida to operate at full capacity as long as social-distancing protocols are observed has not changed. (Like Florida, Texas had reopened quickly, only to see a surge in COVID-19 cases.)

The fact that three South Florida counties have been operating under different rules from the rest of the state while still seeing a surge in coronavirus cases would seem to demonstrate, on its face, that closing bars to stanch the rise in infections is the equivalent of putting a Band-Aid on a severed torso to stop a person from bleeding to death.

Adam Gersten owns Gramps, a bar that has been shuttered for months. Gersten is in the midst of trying to get his restaurant license so he can reopen.

He calls singling out bars in order to combat the pandemic "another half-assed incomplete sort of rudderless attempt to do something while doing nothing about the problem."

Gersten says Beshears' ruling is "very poorly thought-out but consistent with the rest of the things the state is doing."

He notes that the state has had three months to craft a set of guidelines that would make sense and include bars and breweries.

"If there was leadership that was focused on the right thing, it would take into account capacity and close proximity to other parties. If we were to use strict science, those would be the factors," Gersten argues.

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Just up the street, Johnathan Wakefield of J. Wakefield Brewing continues to sell cans of beer for takeout only.  His taproom, which the law considers to be the same as a bar, remains closed.

"For us to get lumped into the same category as nightclubs and lounges isn't right," Wakefield tells New Times. Lump us in with restaurants, sure."

Wakefield points out that his brewery has food trucks on the premises and possesses ample outdoor space for social distancing. Still, his business remains closed.

Says Wakefield: "This whole thing is baffling." 

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