On May 27, as he was preparing to reopen the dining room of his Little Havana bar after a two-month hiatus brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, Ball & Chain owner Bill Fuller says Miami police and code-enforcement officers stopped by to inform him of a recent order from City Manager Arthur Noriega.
Late the previous day, the city manager had amended Miami's emergency coronavirus order to specifically exclude "bars, taverns, pubs, night clubs, banquet halls, cocktail lounges, cabarets, and breweries (collectively, 'Alcohol Service Establishments')."
"It basically effectively shuts us down," Fuller tells New Times.
That's because although Ball & Chain has a Permanent Food Service license from the state, it does not possess a similar license from the City of Miami, which classifies the business as a bar or nightclub.
Fuller says he never had any indication that Ball & Chain wouldn't be allowed to reopen alongside other food-service establishments in the City of Miami after Miami Mayor Francis Suarez announced a May 27 reopening date for Miami restaurants at a press conference two weeks ago.
Fuller estimates that he spent $30,000 preparing to reopen, stocking up on food, making new signs, installing Plexiglas at the bars, and otherwise fitting out the space to adhere to the city's reopening guidelines. He also arranged to bring back about 40 employees — about 80 percent of the bar's pre-coronavirus staffing levels.
When he learned his plans had been upended, Fuller says he was stupefied. “It was really disgusting to have the rug pulled out from underneath us one hour before we were reopening,” he says. “Where was the courtesy of telling our businesses two weeks ago?”
Fuller says he hasn't been given a good explanation for why the City of Miami chose a stricter approach than neighboring municipalities. "Every other county and every other city within Miami-Dade County — Aventura, Miami Beach, Doral, South Miami — has been able to open up venues similar to mine,” he says. "My employees and I think the businesses of the city need a fair explanation. We need to know why the City of Miami is different from any other municipality in Florida."
Fuller wasn't the only Miami bar owner left in the lurch.
"We were ready to open everything," Lizz Dominguez tells New Times, chronicling the chaos that ensued on what was to be reopening day at her Little Havana cocktail emporium, Bar Nancy. "We had a staff of four and a kitchen ready to go. We made all the announcements."
Dominguez and her partners at the small, Revolutionary War-themed pub had laid out a plan to conform to all the rules set down to reopen amid the pandemic. "We've been planning the opening for a few weeks. We built a custom sanitation station to match our décor, took all the chairs from the bar, and stocked the kitchen with fresh provisions."
She and partners Sasha Torres, Katherine Rajsich, Tom Koufopoulos, and Ben Koufopoulos had reimagined Bar Nancy as a tavern-like setting where the focus would be on the food. Then Dominguez's phone began to buzz with texts about the City of Miami's order.
"Ben and the other partners hadn't seen it," she says. "They were too busy getting ready to open. We investigated further and decided not to open. We didn't want to take the risk of getting potential fines. It's all too much."
She says she doesn't understand why, after spending time and money to conform to sanitation and social-distancing guidelines, Bar Nancy won't be permitted to reopen. "We're super disappointed and feel that we are following the same guidelines as restaurants. We have wasted resources. We purchased perishable items. We're serving hot, fresh food, so why not let us open, to say the least."
Ken Lyon, on the other hand, had already decided to delay reopening his cocktail bar, the Anderson, for at least another month. "Things are changing so quickly that we're taking a wait-and-see approach," he says.
Lyon says he will use the time to do some renovations, including moving tables around to increase the outdoor seating.
He also pointed to the main hurdle that has kept him from going full throttle: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' overarching "Safe. Smart. Step-by-Step. Plan for Florida's Recovery."
Published in late April, the document contained a key distinction that differentiated bars from restaurants in its reference to "Bars, pubs, and nightclubs that derive at least 50 percent of sales from alcohol," which were excluded from Phase 1 reopenings, while restaurants were permitted to operate at 50 percent capacity.
"The state says that 50 percent of revenue has to be from food and that's a hurdle for us since food accounts for maybe 30 percent of our sales," Lyon says.
To that end, he's considering tweaking the Anderson's revenue stream. "We could open a farmers' market and serve food to take home or offer family packs," he says. "There are things we could do to get us to 50 percent."
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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. It distinguishes between bars and restaurants (the former are to remain takeout-only for the time being), and its 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."
Lyon remains optimistic that the current strictures will be relaxed. "My guess is that the rules will be loosened up fairly quickly, but we're still going to hold off on reopening for now."
Meanwhile, Dominguez and her staff are back to selling takeout at Bar Nancy. She says she and her partners are making enough to keep the Little Havana place afloat. It's the small staff that's bearing the brunt of the restrictions, she emphasizes.
"We thought reopening would allow our server and bartenders to make a little bit of money, maybe. Now they're without work again."