Florida Venues Struggle Amid Confusing Orders From State on Reopening

Tom DeGeorge, owner of Crowbar, a bar that stages live music in Tampa, Florida, closed in March as part of the pandemic shutdown. As coronavirus surged throughout the state, he was surprised to see a June 3 order from Republican Governor Ron DeSantis that establishments could reopen.

Despite some misgivings, DeGeorge began planning a reopening concert for later in the month, but hit pause when an employee came into contact with a person who had tested positive for the virus. DeGeorge immediately postponed the concert and, after he and his staff had tested negative, began working to reschedule it, but then the state went back into lockdown at the end of June after cases skyrocketed.

So he was even more surprised in early August when, in group meeting with bar owners, Secretary of Department of Business & Professional Regulation Halsey Beshears pointed out a recently added amendment to the latest closure that could allow bars to reopen if they also became licensed as a food-service operation, even though infections were still rising in the state.

“He was pointing to a loophole that said restaurants could serve alcohol but bars couldn’t,” DeGeorge recalls. “He said it was the only way we’d be able to reopen before January.”

Along with many other bars, DeGeorge hired contractors, filed the necessary documents and fees and began planning to reopen as a restaurant — only to see DeSantis lift all restrictions on restaurants and other businesses in the state on September 25, as part of his larger effort to reopen the state’s economy despite the rampant spread of coronavirus.

Asked whether he could now hire a band and pack Crowbar to its 400-person capacity with fans, as many other establishments have been doing, DeGeorge says, “Yes — but I’m not. I just don’t believe it’s safe.”

The governor’s controversial lifting of pandemic protections, even as coronavirus infections rose, was just one of multiple conflicting and confusing directives from the state, counties and cities of Florida regarding bars, restaurants and most places where music is performed. For official live-entertainment venues, the state’s Phase 3 plan, enacted last month, says concerts halls and auditoriums and “re-open fully with limited social distancing protocols,” although some areas, including Miami-Dade county and the city of Fort Lauderdale, are keeping tighter regulations in place, as detailed recently in Pollstar.

But the situation for smaller venues, many of which are technically bars, is often different. Before the latest reopening, many “restaurants” were hosting live music and DJs, while bars and official venues could not. DeGeorge spoke of one nightclub that packed in hundreds of people while the state was technically locked down.

“Even during shutdown, people weren’t complying,” he says. “It’s upsetting to see people who either don’t care or are desperate taking those kinds of risks.”

Pat Lavery, who operates the High Dive bar in Gainesville, makes a similar observation. “There were so many places that were behaving like venues, taking business and having live music but taking no safety precautions.” He says he attempted to get recategorized as a restaurant but was continually “passed around to different agencies” before one official told him with an implicit wink, “Just put a crockpot on the bar.”

Lavery has held off from reopening on a large scale for a number of reasons, one of them being that such a move would be frowned upon by a large percentage of the college-town community around the University of Florida.

“We’re in a liberal county, and the majority of bands would know not to try to play a normal gig anyway — and what a P.R. disaster it would be,” he says. But even for violators, penalties are almost nonexistent.

“Counties can’t override the state, even if there are violations,” he says.

Reps for Beshears and the Department of Business & Professional Regulation declined or did not respond to Variety’s multiple requests for comment. Beshears tweeted on Oct. 1, “There are bars, that have been closed for months, in multiple counties, across the state that have been scolded recently. We are in phase 3 and they are allowed to go back to business. They have a right to work & open back up. If uncomfortable with them, please stay out of them.”

After the June shutdown, Julie Bible, who owns Pegasus in Tampa, reconfigured her 400-capacity bar-venue to be classified as a restaurant and reopened. During one particularly successful night, a nine-hour hip-hop show with multiple acts, she estimates that at its peak, around 200 people were in the venue.

Apparently the big night attracted attention, because she was visited by state inspectors on three occasions — each time, the venue was in compliance, she says — but had her liquor license suspended by the government on August 10. (The matter is further complicated by the fact that Pegasus is located in the unincorporated area of Tampa, “so it’s not clear whether we’re supposed to follow the sheriff or the state rules,” she says.) Although a report from the Beshears’ agency claimed “patrons were standing shoulder-to-shoulder while congregating at the bar area being served alcoholic beverages” and “groups of patrons were also seen in close proximity to one another during a live concert performance,” Bible disputes that characterization.

“I said [to the official], ‘I’m totally in compliance, why are you doing this?’ He said, ‘I’m only doing what my boss says,’” she recalls. She hired a lawyer and reopened within 15 days — owing to the state’s failure to cite a probable cause for the suspension, she says — but her efforts to seek compensation are still pending because the state did not file the necessary paperwork.

Citing other local establishments that are not technically venues, but are still crowded with patrons and presenting karaoke, DJs or live music without interference from officials, Bible says she suspects the reason for her suspension was because the “county was getting dinged for not fining” violators. “I was the only establishment in Hillsborough County to get shut down,” she says, “and there was one suspension in each of the [three neighboring] counties too. I think they were trying to make an example of us, and make it look like they were doing something.”

But even though Pegasus is open, “It’s been slow,” she says. “I’ve turned down several shows because I thought they’d be too big, so we’re in here with 25 to 50 people most nights.”

Indeed, despite DeSantis’ much ballyhooed reopening of the state’s businesses, many would-be patrons are being cautious. More than one person with whom Variety spoke compared the governor to the town mayor in “Jaws,” who insisted on keeping beaches open even as a giant shark preyed on swimmers. Meanwhile, businesses are trying to keep up with a baffling series of directives at the same time they’re trying to stay solvent.

“None of these pivots are cheap,” says Will Walker, owner of Will’s Pub in Orlando, which recently began doing seated outdoor shows where patrons could buy a table for the night. Otherwise, they’ve been getting by with to-go dining and bar services and livestreamed concerts.

“We’re not making money, but we did it to stay connected to the community and help bands,” Walker says. “We’ve had relationships with some of these people for 25 years.” Even so, he says, “We’re not busy. We’re in a blue, liberal area and people aren’t coming in.”

He plans to continue to operate at 50% “until it feels safer — if that’s a plan!” he sighs. “It’s hard to navigate when they keep changing the narrative.”

Lavery, who is operating High Dive at 30-to-50% capacity, seconds the frustration. “The government is shifting responsibility on this — now they’re saying to us, ‘This is on you’ — so they can say businesses are open,” he says. “It’s an election related policy that seems to make no sense.”

DeGeorge says, “I’m actually getting yelled at by people, saying ‘Why aren’t you open at 100% like everybody else? The governor says it’s okay.’”

All four venues spoke of the importance of the National Independent Venues Association, which spearheaded the $10 billion Save Our Stages act. Since added to the coronavirus-relief Heroes Act for U.S., businesses, which is lying fallow while the president and Congress bicker and grandstand, the act has bipartisan support from more than a hundred congresspeople. But many worry that aid will come too late for a distressing number of venues.

“We’re probably losing more money being open than we would if we were closed,” says Lavery. “But we want to keep the community and the musicians alive.”

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