Miami Breweries Reopen Cautiously After COVID-19 Hiatus

Breweries reopen after COVID-19 shutdown.
Breweries reopen after COVID-19 shutdown.
Photo courtesy of J. Wakefield Brewing
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Last week, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis abruptly moved Florida to Phase 3 of his reopening plan, essentially allowing restaurants to operate at full capacity and giving the go-ahead for bars and breweries to open.

The announcement took Miami by storm, including bar and brewery owners, who, after months of forced closure, were suddenly flashed the green light.

Soon after, Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos A. Giménez released a 73-page revision to his "New Normal" guidelines, which take several steps back from the door DeSantis had thrown open.

Johnathan Wakefield wasted no time setting to work. The founder of J. Wakefield Brewing in Wynwood had already drawn up guidelines for his taproom and trained most of his staff. The day after DeSantis made his announcement, J. Wakefield reopened at 50 percent capacity, ending a six-month hiatus.

In the interim, Wakefield made substantial changes to his business model. The brewery has switched from its prior order-at-the-bar operation to table service.

"Nobody can stand and drink a beer. You have to either sit at a table or get your beer and go. If you want to come up and order some cans to take with you, that's fine. If you're coming here to drink a few, you have to sit at a table," Wakefield sums up.

The shift wasn't easy, but it was necessary to protect his staff and customers, the brewer says.

"It was hard to all of a sudden have table service. You have to change the way you train and staff employees. One person is outside making sure everyone has beers and that people are sitting down. We have to both serve and make sure everyone's playing by the rules. I basically turned my taproom into a restaurant overnight."

Adds Wakefield: "For me, coronavirus is still around. This pandemic is not over. You can't just act like this thing isn't real."

Luis Brignoni Jr. co-founded Wynwood Brewing Company with his father, Luis "Pops" Brignoni Sr. in October 2013. When the taproom had to shut down in March, Brignoni Jr. says, the brewery focused on distribution, including sales to major retailers like Publix and Target. But with restaurants closed, sales suffered.

Still, Brignoni is holding off until October 9 to reopen the taproom. He tells New Times he's using the extra week to get ready to welcome customers with phone-accessible menus and a choice between sanitized glassware and disposable plastic cups. The taproom doesn't have outdoor seating, but Brignoni plans to convert the adjacent parking lot into a beer garden.

"There's no shade, so we're looking into installing tents," he says, adding that he's installing high-tech air filters and reconfiguring the tables to account for social distancing.

Like Wakefield, Wynwood Brewing will offer table service only. Also like Johnathan Wakefield, Luis Brignoni Jr. is concerned about employee safety.

"I want to see how the COVID-19 infection rates are looking before we reopen," he says. "We have a lot of regulars that are stoked to come back, but we don't want to put anyone at risk. That's the thing about this virus: You don't know who is at risk."

That said, he's eager to get back to a semblance of normalcy. "We got into the brewery world because we love people. It's tough when you can't even have a beer with someone."

M.I.A. Beer Company in Doral was allowed to reopen at the same time restaurants got the go-ahead, because the brewery is equipped with a full kitchen.

Partner Eddie Leon is bothered by the fact that other breweries were left out. "The atmosphere is the same," he says. "All Miami breweries should have had the same opportunity to reopen. Breweries are not little bars. All breweries could have had the opportunity to reopen with social distancing, and it's not fair."

Leon says he'll also operate at 50 percent capacity even though his restaurant status would allow 100 percent. "Not much has changed for us, even with the new rules," he says.

Leon wishes one COVID-19 mandate be eased — for the next week, at least.

"What really hurts us is the 11 p.m. curfew, especially with the Miami Heat playoffs."

As it stands, he says the brewery will stop serving well before 11 p.m. — even if the game is still on.

"We have to follow the rules. Even with our taproom open, we're only making about 50 percent of what we normally would. It's still a challenge and we're not out of the woods yet."

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