By Lidia Dinkova| June 24, 2020 at 05:25 PM | LINK TO ARTICLE
At least one Florida bar license was suspended and three restaurants were temporarily shut down as Florida set daily records for COVID-19 cases.
Florida restaurants and bars were allowed to reopen a portion of their seating, but some businesses accused of blatantly disregarding the rules are exposed to costly and serious penalties from temporary closures to losing their licenses.
At least one Florida bar and three restaurants were slammed with penalties last weekend, marking a shift toward enforcement after several weeks of education about the new normal as the coronavirus cases mounted. A new daily record of 5,511 was set Wednesday,
“Now I feel like that needle has been turned because of a few people violating the rules,” said Miami attorney Louis Terminello, who chairs Greenspoon Marder’s hospitality, alcohol and leisure industry group. “If you violate the rules, now there is a stricter enforcement.”
Marbet Lewis, founding partner at Spiritus Law in Coral Gables, said the issue is marrying the two seemingly contradictory concepts of social distancing and business profit.
“Seeing a lot of these violations over the weekend really just brings back the main issue we have been having since the beginning of the pandemic. We are seeing — kind of contradictory to each other or on opposing sides — the concept of social distancing and business management and servicing the public at large,” Lewis said. “Those two concepts do not really need to be in conflict with each other.”
Potential consequences depend on whether a company is accused of breaking state, county or municipal guidelines.
Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Giménez last Friday amended his emergency order on business reopenings by outlining repercussions. First-time violators must close for 24 hours and sign an affidavit saying they have taken measures to comply with county guidelines.
Terminello cautioned businesses to take the affidavit seriously based on the threatened consequences.
The county said repeat offenders could face a $500 fine and up to six months in jail.
Miami Design District’s Swan, branded as a modern European restaurant; Astra Mediterranean restaurant near Miami’s Wynwood; and El Secreto Bar and Grill in Little Havana were shut down last weekend. Swan and Astra reopened Sunday after signing affidavits.
“We are good — it is behind us at this point,” Astra said in a Facebook message responding to an inquiry about the closure.
El Secreto told WSVN-TV that it didn’t realize it wasn’t allowed to reopen to begin with because it’s registered as a bar instead of a restaurant.
The consequences could be harsher for eateries accused of flouting state guideline. Gov. Ron DeSantis said they could lose their alcohol licenses, a severe penalty under a state quota system. The permits also are costly, running up to $170,000 in Miami-Dade.
DeSantis allowed bars outside South Florida to open at 50% capacity.
The Knight’s Pub across the street from Orlando’s sprawling University of Central Florida campus lost its alcohol license Monday on a suspension from the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation. At least 28 patrons and 13 employees have tested COVID-19 positive, according to the department.
Owner Michael D’Esposito issued a statement saying the pub is being used as a “scapegoat” for all coronavirus cases in the Orlando area. Photos circulated by the state showing patrons without masks were from last year and are being used to “mislead the public.”
The pub was open from June 5 to 8 at limited capacity, encouraged social distancing and disinfected surfaces. It closed June 9 after a patron reported coronavirus symptoms.
“It is a slippery slope to essentially blame one small business for a majority of the COVID-19 cases in the area, a baseless accusation we take with the utmost seriousness,” D’Esposito added.
Lewis noted it’s difficult to get back a liquor license.
“That requires an entire administrative process and potential hearing before the administrative law judge to put those licenses back in place,” she said. It “would be difficult to defend repeated violations of the same county ordinance, especially during a time when the nation at large is trying to really bring those numbers down.”
Social media has played a role in exposing businesses for disregarding safety precaution. Some accounts have been created specifically to expose violators. Instagram account @covid_305 posts photos and videos and already netted over 12,700 followers.
Photos have circulated of Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, who had the coronavirus in March, at Swan on June 11 and 18.
Reports of violations are unfortunate, Lewis said.
“But in all honesty from our perspective and based on what we do, it wasn’t unexpected,” she said. “I think a lot of businesses have struggled with how to put these protocols into place, and now we are seeing the results of that.”