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Opinion: State mandate discriminates against already struggling breweries

Craft breweries are struggling to find a way to open with many being forced to apply for a restaurant license. I see many hot dog rollers on the horizon.
Credit: Josslyn Howard

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — This is an opinion piece written by Stephanie Danley of First Coast Brews and does not reflect the official views of First Coast News.

Across the state of Florida, breweries, taprooms and bars had a very brief period of time to try and make up for lost profits during the mandatory Phase 1 closures stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Three weeks to be exact. 

Three weeks of preparations, reopenings and renewed hope before it was once again snatched away. 

Now, bars, taprooms, and breweries are scrambling to come up with a solution to remain open, with the state only giving them one option.

Serve food or serve nothing.

Let that sink in. Wicked Barley Brewing can remain open following the restaurant guidelines. You can go there, order beer and leave without eating a bite of food. Meanwhile, Southern Swells Brewing can't open their taproom for onsite consumption because they don't have a restaurant license.

Consider this. A 'Gentleman's Club' establishment can remain open, serving liquor and lap dances until 2 a.m., simply because they have a kitchen. You can't tell me that there is social distancing going on there.

Restaurants remain open and able to serve cocktails and beer with their food service. In fact, you could go to any of these places and just drink. So it's not like the shutdown in April and May, when everyone was forced to do business to-go.  

When bars, breweries and taprooms were shut down the second time, COVID-19 cases were on the rise. The logic indicates that the state thought bars were the reason for the rise. Yet today, our numbers are even higher, they are not dropping. Can the state truly be blaming bars and breweries?

My feeling is that the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation is not doing their jobs. They are NOT regulating.  Some of the places that remain open are not following guidelines.  No one is policing them. 

But the DBPR has been sending people to the closed breweries, who have remained compliant and offering to-go services only.  Armed agents, with pre-filled out paperwork alleging violations. As Aardwolf Brewery recently posted on social media, the agents had to modify the paperwork on-site because the violations did not exist.

Let's get this straight, before the second shutdown, every brewery in town had complied with regulations. Removing bar seating, reducing taproom capacity, adding outdoor seating, adding sanitation stations and the bartenders were enforcing the rules. 

Every damn one of them.

Their businesses were hurting, but for the common good, they re-opened in compliance. There was too much to lose if they didn't, even 50% capacity was better than an empty taproom.

Now they have shut again and it's an entirely new ballgame because they're the only ones shuttered. This makes me angry.

Craft breweries are struggling to find a way to open with many being forced to add basic food options and apply for a restaurant license. I see many hot dog rollers on the horizon.

Our friends at the Tallahassee Beer Society interviewed the head of the FDBPR, one Halsey Beshears, on their podcast this past week.  His advice to breweries, add food or go out of business.

So does that hot dog ward off the virus?  Of course not! What wards off the virus is people observing guidelines, like social distancing, wearing masks, washing your hands. Businesses that open are obligated to observe and enforce those guidelines.

So the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation sending multiple agents to closed breweries on a witch hunt means those agents were not out policing the businesses that are open. 

In my opinion, there were a lot of bars that didn't comply when they re-opened in June. We all know the story of the woman and her 15 friends that contracted COVID-19 as they went out the very first weekend. A party of 16. They were not alone in that bar either. It was the obligation of the bar to enforce those rules and it is the obligation of the DBPR to make sure they do.

It is not the job of Beshears to close an industry for good. Not many people will come back to Florida as tourists if there are no breweries or bars open in the state.  And I mean out of business, not just now.

Breweries are scrambling. They are hurting. They need our to-go business. They need us to flatten curve. They are going to need us to eat those roller hot dogs with our beer but more importantly, they need us to be vocal.

The Florida Brewers Guild is offering a guide to be vocal. 

Find your representative here, click on representatives, then the handy "Find your Representatives" button. Fill out with your address. You will get a list. 

Write them a letter, tell them your passion for our craft breweries. Tell them how much they contribute to the fabric of our home. Charity work, neighborhood improvement, tourism, etc.  Put your passion for craft in that letter. 

Send another in a week. Show how unfair this is to these small businesses. If we don't start getting vocal, we may not have any breweries left when this is over.

I don't want to live in that world.