Not yet: State regulator says reopening bars would be ‘pouring gas on fire'

Florida bars must wait longer to reopen as state grapples with surging COVID-19 numbers

Florida's Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered all bars closed after coronavirus numbers spiked. (WPLG)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – This weekend was once eyed by the state as a potential date for bars in Florida to at least partially reopen, but that decision remains on hold.

In an exclusive interview almost two weeks ago, Halsey Beshears, the man in charge of regulating bars in Florida, told News4Jax that July 16 was a potential date to decide whether to reopen bars.

The answer is not now.

“It’s like the virus -- as it’s spread, it’s gone like wildfire,” said Beshears, secretary of the state’s Department of Business and Professional Regulation. “We can’t open the bars and breweries right now. That’d be like pouring gasoline on the fire to make it hotter to burn out faster. We have to maintain what we are doing right now.”

The Florida Department of Health on Friday reported 11,466 new cases and 130 additional deaths -- the fourth consecutive day of more than 100 deaths.

“These numbers have to stop climbing, it has to flatten, and then there has to be a decrease in that positivity number,” Beshears told The News Service of Florida.

A handful of bars have sued the state to overturn the June 26 order that prohibits them for serving drinks on-site, arguing that it’s unfair to single out bars over other chain restaurants that serve alcohol.

“We’re not trying to single anybody out,” Beshears told NSF. “A fact is when people congregate in large groups and close quarters, they drink too much. They tend to get inebriated and their inhibitions are lowered.

“We know for a fact when that happens, that virus spreads like wildfire,” Beshears continued. “Those other places that do have a kitchen, the theory is sit down, spread them out, give them some food, and then they can move on.”

In the last three weeks, agents with the Florida Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco have made more than 8,400 visits to bars. Just five licenses have been suspended and 160 non-compliance notices have been issued.

“The restaurants that are out there that they say are crowded, we go in. We inspect. We look at the occupancy number, and they are in compliance,” said Beshears.

The state order about bars doesn’t affect restaurants that derive less than half of their gross revenue from the sale of alcohol.

DeSantis, while in Apopka on Friday, said young adults continue to drive the increases in case numbers.

DeSantis initially stopped bars and nightclubs from serving alcohol for on-site consumption as part of an emergency order on March 20 that was aimed at stopping the spread of the virus.

The order was lifted on June 5 in all but South Florida, which has been hit hardest by the pandemic. But while bars were allowed to start serving drinks again, the state limited indoor customer occupancy to 50 percent and allowed only table service.

The state is now considering new options for bars, including moving all service outdoors and an early curfew.

News Service of Florida reporters Jim Turner and Tom Urban contributed to this report.

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