State’s top regulator meets with Jacksonville bar, brewery owners

On-site alcohol ban because of COVID-19 leaves businesses struggling to survive

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Struggling to survive -- that’s how many local brewery owners say they feel during the pandemic.

The Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, which banned on-site alcohol consumption at bars and breweries in late June in response to a spike in COVID-19 numbers in the state, met Friday with bar and brewery owners at Bold City Brewery in downtown Jacksonville to talk about reopening safely.

Secretary Halsey Beshears said he would be meeting with bars and breweries around the state, after complaints from more than 100 breweries across the state that their business model is different from bars and they should be allowed to serve alcohol with limitations, just like restaurants.

Beshears began with separate private talks Friday afternoon in Jacksonville with groups of craft-brewery owners and bar owners. The media were not allowed in the meeting, but News4Jax was told it was an intense discussion.

“I really think that he is behind us, (but) his process is slow,” Crooked Rooster Brewery owner Sarah Sheppard said after meeting with Beshears.

She said it concerns her that Beshears didn’t have a timetable for reopening.

“It’s ‘just another three weeks, another four weeks, another week or two,’ -- (but) some breweries won’t make it,” Sheppard said.

She’s hoping hers will.

“Arrangements for meetings in Pensacola, Tallahassee, and Tampa-St. Petersburg are currently in coordination,” department spokesman Chris Kingry said in a prepared statement Friday. “Additional meeting locations also are under consideration for next week and may be dependent on the final storm path forecast for Tropical Storm Isaias. Media access will not be available during these meetings.”

The storm was upgraded to a hurricane Friday and threatens to bring rain and winds to South Florida and the state’s East Coast in the coming days.

Beshears issued the order banning the sale of alcohol for on-site consumption at bars, after non-compliance with coronavirus safety guidelines in the industry was considered too widespread to police.

“Our issue is the fact that the DPBR’s failure to enforce regulations on some of these offending bars and restaurants has caused everyone to be punished,” said Joe Baez, owner of Lemonstreet Brewing Company. “We feel that it has been very unilateral, very unfair, and we need to fix it. We need to stop this.”

At Friday’s meeting, the owners offered ideas for online sales, beer deliveries and earlier closing times across the board.

“He expressed his willingness to work with us and means of opening up safely again,” said Baez.

The order as it stands has forced many bars to close their doors, while some have sought licenses to expand food service. Beshears’ order doesn’t affect restaurants that derive less than half of their gross revenue from the sale of alcohol.

Some owners think they’ll be put out of business if things don’t change.

“He’s really trying to find a way, a path back to open and profitability and supporting the families that these companies ultimately support,” State Rep. Jason Fischer said of Beshears.

Baez’s brewery in the Rail Yard District, which opened last September, has been closed for four months and he said his business is won’t that won’t survive much longer without an increase in revenue. The brewery is currently making less than 10% of its normal revenue, which doesn’t pay the bills.

Baez said he’s invested about $500,000 in his business, and if the Department of Business and Professional Regulation’s restriction on on-site consumption continues for the next couple of months, he’ll be forced to close permanently.

“The sad part is that not only us, but all of our fellow breweries have been affected -- all of us losing valuable cash because we still have to pay bills. We still have to pay rent, insurance and everything,” Baez said.

Baez was granted $2,000 from the city and PPP money, but he said that’s not enough to stay afloat.

“This is an area that we’re trying to revitalize, and many breweries do that,” Baez said. “They are the pioneers of revitalization and all that investment is going to be thrown away.”

Baez said he removed 50% of the tables at Lemonstreet and is allowing less than half of the usual number of customers inside while operating only for take-out.

“[Beshears] says there are scientific facts regarding the effect of bars being open and COVID, and we asked him what that science was, and he said he didn’t have it,” Baez said.

Baez said owners aren’t asking for money. They are just asking for the same opportunity that other businesses have had to make money during the pandemic.

The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.

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