4 minute read

Bar None

Left out of phase one, Orlando bar owners and employees move forward with a cautious approach to reopening

Gov. Ron DeSantis last week unveiled a somewhat muddled set of plans to lift the statewide stay-athome orders and initiate a phased reopening of businesses, beginning on Monday, May 4. The first phases of his “Safe. Smart. Step-by-Step” plan include reopening retail establishments at 25 percent capacity and restaurants with socially distanced outdoor seating. Gatherings of 10 or more people are still strongly discouraged. Even under these newly relaxed guidelines, announced on a day coronavirus cases in Florida surged past 33,000, bars and nightlife spots are still effectively prohibited from reopening.

Orlando Weekly spoke to local bar owners and employees who all agreed with this decision, preferring a cautious approach with more testing and curve-flattening before trying to reopen as usual, even with the continued loss of income weighing more heavily on their minds by the day.

“If DeSantis would have allowed bars to open on May 4, then the Falcon would not have been ready to open safely to the public. We would have waited until we had all precautions taken to ensure a safe experience,” said Melissa Schumann of Thornton Park’s Falcon Bar. “I have been working on updates to the bar with our customers’ and employees’ welfare in mind. I have been mentally preparing for an open date of June 1, but the hard part for planning is having no reopen date at all. I feel confident that when we do reopen that our customers will feel at ease in our space based on our attention to their safety.”

“Oh and one more thing,” Schumann added. “DeSantis needs to fix the fucking unemployment system now!”

Hanna Atwood, a longtime bartender at the Falcon, agreed. “The really unfortunate thing about bars being left out of this first phase of reopening is the financial impact it is having on employees and small business owners alike. Hospitality workers were among the first people to experience lost wages due to COVID-19 closures and are part of the population being denied most frequently for unemployment benefits and pandemic relief. The system designed to help is broken with no remedy in sight and not having a definitive timeline for when things will turn around is stressful. However, we’ll be ready with hand sanitizer in hand and masks on our faces … when the time comes,” Atwood assured us.

Mary McGinn, a co-owner and bartender at the Milk District’s Nook on Robinson, is also realistic about the need for more time before her bar reopens: ”While it is very stressful to have extremely limited income, we understand that safety comes first. We aren’t anticipating reopening to the public as a bar and venue until the government decides that it’s safe for us to operate. Until then, we will continue to sell Florida-made beverages to-go through our plexiglass pick-up window.”

“I didn’t expect bars and clubs to reopen so soon, so I’m not surprised,” said local DJ BMF, who holds court regularly at multiple drinking establishments. “We all want to get the party started again, but only when it’s safe.”

These are the rules Florida restaurants must follow to reopen:

Servers and other employees won’t be counted toward limits on occupancy when restaurants reopen under coronavirus guidelines, the state’s top business regulator says.

Also, Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation Secretary Halsey Beshears last Friday advised restaurant owners to use as much outdoor space as possible under federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention physical-distancing recommendations.

“I want to be real clear about that, and this is how we’re going to regulate this: You know, if you have outdoor seating, there is no [maximum] occupancy,” Beshears told members of the Orange County Economic Recovery Task Force’s Business Work Group during a teleconference.

Beshears continued, “So, if that outside seating area can seat 100 people, then you can seat 100 people as long as you can practice those social distancing guidelines.”

Last Wednesday, Gov. Ron DeSantis outlined what he described as a step-by-step plan that initially will allow restaurants outside of Miami- Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties to have outdoor seating and occupancy indoors of up to 25 percent.

Chuck Whittall, chairman of the Orange County working group, said business owners would have preferred DeSantis allow 50 percent occupancy, as was recommended by a task force created by the governor.

“You just can’t do enough business with that,” said Whittall, who is also president of the real estate company Unicorp National Development.

Whittall said they were also disappointed hair salons and barber shops were left off the initial list of reopening in a three-phase plan that doesn’t have specific timelines.

DeSantis’ first phase, which started Monday, also includes steps such as allowing hospitals and other medical providers to conduct elective procedures. However, movie theaters will remain closed, as will bars, gyms and hair salons, and visitors will continue to be prevented from going to hospitals and nursing homes.

On Friday, DeSantis added state parks to the list of what will reopen in phase one, but he maintained that gatherings of 10 or more people will continue to be prohibited.

Beshears said he expects that bumping occupancy to 50 percent for restaurants “gets changed sooner rather than later.”

To help, Beshears said his agency will only count customers in indoor occupancy numbers.

“If it takes 12 people, right, to run the restaurant period and a 25 percent occupancy means you can only have 13 more patrons, you know, it just doesn’t even make sense to open the door,” Beshears said.

“So, that’s the way we’re going to read it for now, and we’ll see how that works, and hopefully that can help out a little bit.” — Jim Turner, NSF