State official predicts bars and breweries could remain closed for six more months

With anticipated spikes in COVID-19 cases as school begins, it could be six more months before Florida's bars and breweries are allowed to reopen.

The prediction was made Friday by the head of Florida's regulatory agency for bars and restaurants during a meeting with craft brewers in Vero Beach, said Chris Hughes, an owner of Dirty Oar Beer Company in Cocoa Village.

For the past few weeks, Halsey Beshears, secretary of the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, has traveled the state meeting with bar and brewery owners. He was in Brevard and Indian River counties Friday. The meetings were not open to the public, and reporters were not allowed to attend.

Paul Hill, left, and Chris Hughes, owners of Dirty Oar Beer Company in Cocoa, enjoy a beer at Walking Tree Brewery in Vero Beach after meeting with state officials and other craft brewers on Friday.

Beshears' office didn't immediately respond to a request for comment Friday afternoon.

Hughes and Dirty Oar co-owner Paul Hill attended a meeting for brewers at Walking Tree Brewery in Vero Beach. Bar owners met later that day at Lou's Blues Bar & Grill in Indialantic.

"My take away was he was very gracious," Hughes said. "He doesn't have to do this, but he is making a point to go around and meet with everybody and listen. He's a punching bag. He took a lot of blows."

More:Breweries tell top state regulator how they can reopen safely during coronavirus pandemic

With the exception of a few weeks in May and June, bars and breweries have been closed since March. 

"Everybody's upset, because they're losing money," Hughes said. "But it's not solely up to him."

More:Cocoa Village pub sues Gov. DeSantis, arguing Florida's bar shutdown is unconstitutional

Beshears talked with owners about ways to make money, such as the possibility of online sales for craft beer. Another suggestion was to obtain a food service license.

The Dirty Oar Beer Company in Cocoa reopened its taproom this week after entering a partnership with a food vendor.

The Dirty Oar reopened early this week after partnering with a food vendor, Hughes said. It's not something he and his partners wanted to do — they want to sell beer, not food — but it was a way to bring people in for more than just takeout.

Hughes said Beshears has been encouraging bars and breweries to form these partnerships or to open their own kitchens, and his office has made the application process quicker and easier.

"They want to see a food license with your name on it, whether you be a brewery or a bar," Hughes said. "Because the idea is that if you have food service and treat your bar as a restaurant, you will be seating people. There will be less people wandering around and coming into close contact."

The Dirty Oar is working with Mike Mendes and Speedie Weenie, a food truck that, pre-COVID, operated at the brewery every Sunday. It's a partnership built on trust. The Dirty Oar name is on the food license. Hughes and his co-owners have to know Mendes will be there when the brewery is open.

"Food service is supposed to be available the whole time you're doing beverage service," Hughes said.

Jason and Rebecca Estes, owners of the Village Idiot Pub in Cocoa Village, reopened their business Friday after getting a state license to serve food.

Owners of the Village Idiot Pub, also in Cocoa Village, went the restaurant route, too. The pub reopened on Friday after passing final inspection for their food license.

More: Head of Florida licensing agency to meet with Brevard bar and brewery owners 

Rebecca Estes, who owns the Village Idiot with husband Jason, said Beshears helped facilitate their license. Like Hughes, she said he seemed eager to help businesses find a way to reopen within the limits of the governor's pandemic-prompted executive order, which allows restaurants to remain open with social distancing and limited indoor seating.

Jason Estes said they had opened an expansion to the 5-year-old pub just a few weeks before the executive order came down in March. It included an area they had planned to use for occasional catering events. 

Instead, they spent the past few weeks turning it into a small kitchen, switching out sinks and installing a sandwich press. Now they will offer a limited menu of grilled cheese sandwiches and charcuterie boards. 

They've talked with Gail Lightle at Keep It Local Brevard, a new bakery nearby, about supplying bread and pretzels. 

The Estes said offering light food was in their long-range plans. The pandemic expedited the process. The food license wasn't overly expensive, about $200, Rebecca said. But setting up the kitchen cost $3,000-$5,000, money that was in short supply after months of no income.

"Without this license, we would have no idea when we could have opened," she said. "We're under the impression that it will pay for itself. ... We kind of think that was the next step for us, so we're just going to embrace it and move forward."

They feel lucky, because it was relatively easy for them to make the transition. They had the space, a team of contractors willing to help on a moment's notice and a supportive landlord. 

Hughes expressed a similar feeling. The Dirty Oar already had a good relationship with a trusted food vendor.

More: Owners of Cocoa Pub eager to reopen

For other brewers at Friday's meeting, the mood wasn't so optimistic.

"Despair?" Hughes said of the general feeling after Beshears said it could be months before bars reopen. "It deflated everybody's balloons. A lot of people were really upset. We had an avenue. For a lot of people, it's not that easy."


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