After meeting with licensing secretary about reopening, bar owners have more questions than answers

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Halsey Beshears, the secretary of the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, met with approximately 50 Central Florida bar owners Sunday to discuss their options for reopening. According to one bar owner who attended the one-hour meeting at The Abbey, an entertainment venue in downtown Orlando’s Thornton Park, “I think most of us left with more questions than we came in with.”

Bars were allowed to serve patrons on-premises in the state’s phase 2 reopening, but then were ordered by Beshears to shut down again at the end of June following a surge in coronavirus cases throughout the state.

Will Walker, owner of bars in the Mills 50 district, said the secretary admitted that some mistakes were made in the first reopening, but quoted Beshears as saying, “I don’t want to play the blame game.”

But even as he said he made mistakes with the first opening, he seemed to place the blame on bar owners who did not “follow the rules,” which included requiring patrons to be seated at a table in order to be served and to not congregate at bar. Occupancy could be no more than 50 percent.

“But everyone in that room was following the rules” prior to the shutdown, said Aaron Dudek of The Lodge, The Woods and Burton’s Bar. “We were obviously there because we care and we’re trying to fix the problem.”

One “fix” being pushed was for bar owners to obtain a 509 license, which would allow them to serve food, in essence making the bar a restaurant and therefor allowed to be open. Beshears’ department is in charge of licensing for bars, restaurants and other businesses.

And many bar owners are scrambling to install kitchens and offer food. Walker is finalizing plans to begin food service at Will’s Pub. “Poof! I’m a restaurateur,” said the bar owner.

Wendy Connor, who operates the Abbey, said there seemed to be a determination to change people’s behavior. “He kept emphasizing...people who go to a bar don’t sit at tables, they congregate together.” Connor, too, is looking at serving food in order to reopen, utilizing the Abbey’s existing catering kitchen. “We can’t survive too much longer,” she said, “we haven’t made any money in months.” Previously, to qualify as a restaurant an establishment had to realize at least 51 percent of its sales from food. That threshold was removed by executive order.

Walker and others said they were glad that someone from the state was at least holding the meetings but expressed frustration that there was no path to reopening. “There’s no legislation even being talked about to help bars out,” said Dudek.

Several at the meeting mentioned that Beshears kept referring to their business as an entry-level job. “‘Dude, this is how I make my living, I’m 46 years old’” Dudek said he wanted to say. “Not only did it put me through college, it’s putting my kid through college.”

Although Beshears wore a mask when he arrived at the venue Sunday, several attendees noted that he wandered about without one. There is no statewide mandate to wear a mask but Orange County requires them. One bar owner said that if the meeting had been in his place, “I would have had to toss him out.”

Beshears has been holding meetings with bar owners throughout the state – Sunday’s was the last one – and told the crowds that he already knew what questions he was going to be asked and admitted that he had no answers.

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