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Drinking in bars, breweries returns Monday

Florida bars can open the taps again Monday.

Department of Business and Professional Regulation Secretary Halsey Beshears announced Thursday he was rescinding an emergency order that prevented onsite consumption of alcohol at bars amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“Beginning Monday, these vendors may operate at 50% of the facility’s indoor capacity, allow bar service to seated patrons, and permit outdoor seating and service with appropriate social distancing,” the department said in a news release, hours after Beshears and Gov. Ron DeSantis met in Fort Myers with restaurant operators.

News of Beshears' decision quickly spread on social media, drawing cheers from bar owners desperate to get the libations flowing again after waiting on the sidelines for months.

“WE GET TO OPEN THE BAR MONDAY!!!!!” Sean Dunnigan, who owns Ollie’s Pub in Cape Coral, posted on Facebook about 7:30 p.m. Thursday.

Jacob Weil, a lawyer who represents bar owners suing the state over the shutdown, said he is glad DeSantis is allowing proprietors to reopen.

“Unfortunately, due to the delayed action he took, and unchecked power he allowed Secretary Beshears to take in this unprecedented time, thousands of establishments will never reopen, and those that do will likely never be able to climb out of this hole the state has put them in,” Weil said in a text message.

State officials “failed countless small business owners, their employees, and their patrons, by failing to properly regulate,” Weil added.

“Hopefully this will be a learning experience, and our state will look at how they can compensate these businesses for the losses they have sustained at the hands of poor government policy,” he said.

In late July, the Florida Brewers Guild warned DeSantis that the “vast majority of over 320 small businesses, representing over 10,000 jobs, are existing solely on a ‘to-go’ model for our products — this constitutes less than 10% of our collective sales and is an untenable model for our industry.”

A number of tavern owners were able to keep their doors open by offering low-budget, hassle-free cuisine, such as hot dogs, cold sandwiches and Hot Pockets, as the restrictions didn’t impact restaurants and other establishments that served food.

Bars and craft breweries were among the businesses ordered to go dark in March by DeSantis in an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus, which causes the respiratory illness known as COVID-19.

Bars in all but Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties were allowed to start serving indoors again in early June. But the situation got out of hand as photos of numerous packed establishments not following safety guidelines went out over social media, spurring Beshears to re-impose the onsite consumption ban June 26.

The restrictions that will be in place Monday, such as 50% capacity and service to seated customers, maintain the earlier safety guidelines.

“In meetings with hundreds of owners of bars and breweries across the state, I’ve heard their stories of struggle, and I’ve observed their serious commitment to making health and safety a continuing priority in their businesses,” Beshears said in Thursday’s announcement. “It’s time that we take this step, and it’s vital that we start moving forward with this sector of our hospitality industry who have endured one of the toughest paths for sustaining a business during this pandemic.”

DeSantis, who teased the announcement during the earlier restaurant event in Fort Myers, has described the effort to enforce compliance as playing the arcade game whack-a-mole.

“We saw some outbreaks linked to bars in Florida,” DeSantis said. “But my sense is that that behavior would probably have been happening, you know, in private residences.”

“We’ve been open 43 years which is the longest singularly owned a bar in Jacksonville by one family. And if we make three more years will be the oldest bar in Jacksonville, 46 years, which is the longest that’s ever been here," said Charles Jenkins, the manager of Judy’s Pub in Jacksonville.

Jenkins said coronavirus put a damper on those hopes for some time.

He was dumbfounded when he heard the state was shuttering bars for a second time during the pandemic.

“If you can go into a restaurant, sit down at the bar, any restaurant and sports bar, and get a hotdog and get a beer, why can’t you sit here and get a hotdog and a beer?” said Jenkins.

Because they own the property and don’t have rent or a mortgage, Jenkins says they didn’t fare as bad as others, but his bartenders, like Dorinda Bookout, were still without a steady income for months.

Come Monday, bars will be able to operate at 50% indoor capacity, serve patrons seated at the bar and serve guests who are seated outside in a socially distanced manner.

“We’re doing everything we can to be safe and have a good time have some fun, so y’all come out and join us. It’s a great time here at Judy’s Pub,” said DJ Chris Johnson.

Jenkins said bars have been unfairly targeted when compared to restaurants.

“I just don’t think this virus is that smart where it can tell the difference between a restaurant and a bar,” said Jenkins.

For basically six months, he hasn’t been allowed to sell alcohol for on-site consumption It has hurt his staff and bartenders.

“I went and applied for the food license so I could re-open. Well, it’s due to be approved Tuesday and we’re opening Monday, so now I don’t want it," said Jenkins.

Things will start looking like a little more like the normal Judy’s, given extra sanitation and social distancing.

"Rarely do we get past 50% capacity in here anyway, you know, because let’s face it, the competition is stiff, you know, everybody has karaoke,” said Jenkins.

Speaking of karaoke, DJ Chris said they’ve got extra safety protocols in place for that, too.

"We have safe karaoke here. We have disposable covers for the microphone switch with every singer, and we’re doing everything we can to be safe and have a good time. Have some fun,” said Johnson.

During the closure, bars have still been allowed to serve cocktails in to-go containers for guests, which normally wouldn’t be allowed.

News4Jax reporter Maggie Lorenz contributed to this report.