Bar owners drop at least one lawsuit, a day after the state agrees to reopen bars and breweries at 50% capacity

Bars and breweries can reopen Monday at half capacity. Green Parrot Bar, Key West. Credit: ArminFlickr - Wikimedia Commons.

Bar owners who put pressure on the state, filing several lawsuits, are now allowed to open their doors on Monday, at 50 percent capacity.

Attorney John W. Dill, who filed a lawsuit July 10 on behalf of downtown Orlando bar owners, said his clients are ready to reopen following Gov. Ron DeSantis’ green light.

The decision came after several meetings between bar and brewery owners and the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, lawsuits that challenged the constitutionality of the shutdown, as well as COVID-19 trends.

Dill said his clients voluntarily dismissed their lawsuit Friday morning. The clients included Irish Shannon’s, Chillers, Cahoots, Latitudes, Ember, Clandestino, 64 North, Aero, The Patio, and Hanson’s Shoe Repair (a bar in the historic Hanson building). They alleged the shutdown order was unconstitutional.

“This has been devastating. No one wants another shutdown,” Dill said in an interview with the Florida Phoenix. He predicts the industry will readily report drinking establishments that pack in customers “at double capacity, triple capacity” in violation of the governor’s order to accommodate no more than 50 percent of pre-pandemic service.

Dill said they will be more likely to report establishments on “the fringe” that fail to follow the rules.

“They’ll be the first ones to call it in,” Dill said. “I have a conglomerate of competitors, but they’re united.”

Other groups also filed lawsuits over the bar and brewery shutdown, in part because restaurants were able to serve alcohol. The groups sought injunctions against enforcement of the shutdown, but in at least two cases, the injunctions were denied in court.

After a partial reopening followed by a spike in new COVID-19 cases attributed to young adults partying, Business and Professional Regulation pulled liquor licenses from a handful of bars caught overcrowding their establishments and on June 26 shut down all bars and breweries.

That was “enough of a scare,” Dill said, to inspire wider compliance with distancing requirements and self-policing in the industry. He added that his law firm declined to represent bar owners believed to have flouted the previous restrictions.

At the governor’s direction, Business and Professional Regulation Secretary Halsey Beshears rescinded the shutdown Thursday in Emergency Order 2020-10 and issued this statement:

“In meetings with hundreds of owners of bars and breweries across the state, I’ve heard their stories of struggle, and I’ve observed their serious commitment to making health and safety a continuing priority in their businesses. It’s time that we take this step, and it’s vital that we start moving forward with this sector of our hospitality industry who have endured one of the toughest paths for sustaining a business during this pandemic.”

Dill said his clients are ready for business because they already made the structural changes necessary to comply with the new regulations, issued Thursday and effective on Monday. He said they plan to screen and temperature-check their employees, require face masks and enforce distancing.

Dill called Bashear’s order allowing bars to reopen at half their former capacity with CDC-recommended distancing “a lifeline, a lifesaver” that will prevent them from defaulting on rents and will allow them to hire back some of their employees.

“This is what they wanted,” Dill said.

Asked whether he believes his clients’ lawsuit and others fighting the shutdown led to the reopening, Dill said, “We think it may have. We hope it did. … I think it’s good we did it.”