A bar near the University of Central Florida has had its state alcoholic beverage license suspended for violating reopening guidelines after 13 employees and at least 28 customers tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
The Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation announced Monday night the emergency suspension of the license of The Knights Pub in Orlando. The suspension came two days after Gov. Ron DeSantis said the state would begin cracking down on restaurants and bars that fail to follow coronavirus guidelines.
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Key guidelines were included in a June 3 executive order by DeSantis, known as Executive Order 20-139, that allowed bars to operate at 50 percent of their indoor capacity, with seated service.
“Due to the Suspended Licensee’s failure to abide by the explicit terms of Executive Order 20-139 and disregard of the well-known dangers of COVID-19, it is likely that the Suspended Licensee will continue its harmful business practices and behavior,” the suspension said, referring to the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus.
During an appearance Tuesday in Orlando, DeSantis said there will be “no tolerance” for businesses that don’t try to meet the 50 percent indoor occupancy requirement.
“If you go in and it's just like mayhem, like Dance Party USA, and it's packed to the rafters, that's just cut and dry, and that's not just an innocent mistake,” DeSantis said during a news conference at Orlando Regional Medical Center.
DeSantis added that he told Department of Business and Professional Regulation Secretary Halsey Beshears to give warnings to businesses that may be at 55 percent occupancy. But for establishments not attempting to limit the crowds, DeSantis said, “just suspend the license and then we'll move on.”
“And then, people will hopefully get the message that these guidelines are in place for a reason,” DeSantis said.
Beshears, who was also at the news conference, said sheriffs and state Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco officers will check on restaurants and bars throughout the state to ensure compliance with the guidelines.
“This is simple, like the governor said, those that are in flagrant violation, we have ABT officers that are going to be out from now on from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. checking on these bars and restaurants,” Beshears said.
Other bars in Florida have had employees test positive since the establishments reopened this month. But The Knights Pub is the first to get its license suspended and is blocked from selling alcohol until the department’s order is lifted or a final order is issued.
The bar had 13 employees test positive for COVID-19, and the Florida Department of Health determined through contact tracing “that at least 28 patrons tested positive for COVID-19 after visiting the suspended licensee’s address of record.”
On Saturday, DeSantis defended his decisions in reopening the economy amid a surge in new cases, while saying that the Department of Business and Professional Regulation will ramp up inspections because “people just jam packed” in some restaurants and bars.
"There are reasons why it was done that way," DeSantis said of indoor seating and spacing guidelines. "It wasn’t just pulled out of a hat. ... When those very reasonable guidelines are disobeyed, well, it ends up defeating some of the purpose of what we are trying to accomplish."
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The state had not been aggressive in regulating businesses since the first phase of a DeSantis economic reopening plan began May 4.
When restaurants were allowed to first reopen at 25 percent indoor capacity, Beshears advised owners to use as much outdoor space as possible under federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention physical-distancing recommendations and that servers and other employees wouldn’t be counted toward limits on indoor occupancy.
The USA Today Florida Network reported Monday that no fines or administrative cases had been filed as the department received more than 300 complaints about restaurants and bars statewide failing to follow reopening rules. A department spokeswoman told USA Today that inspectors were educating license holders to bring them into compliance.
When asked Tuesday why the state hasn’t acted on complaints about bars violating the executive order, Beshears said the state has only received 106 complaints since the second phase of DeSantis' reopening plan started this month. He added that he’s advised Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco officers to remember what it was like to be in their 20s.
“Everyone's been locked at home, they want to get out, they want to just get some fresh air and stretch their wings a little bit,” Beshears said. “So, to remember that, that everyone was going to do the best they could, these restaurants and these bars, to allow people back in and try and maintain the governor's orders. There are going to be a few bad apples. We recognize that. We wanted to warn them originally.”
On Monday, Florida topped 100,000 cases of COVID-19, as it added 2,926 new cases. Also, the virus is blamed for killing 3,173 Florida residents.
The Department of Business and Professional Regulation’s order suspending the license of The Knight’s Pub said that on June 5, the first night bars were allowed to open, “patrons were being served alcoholic beverages while not being seated for service and appropriate social distancing measures were not being enforced.”
“Likewise, on June 6, 2020, the Suspended Licensee was observed violating the terms of Executive Order 20-139, Phase 2,” the order continues. “Patrons were again being served alcoholic beverages while not being seated for service and appropriate social distancing measures were not being enforced.”
The bar tweeted on June 5, “the day we have all been waiting for,” emojis of beer and a sunglasses-wearing, smiling sun.
The bar proclaims on its website, “We're UCF's second home and the best damn college bar you could imagine. Not because of our drink specials, die hard staff, or even the proximity to UCF. But because of you ... the patrons who make this Pub one of kind, wild every night, and the place you'll make memories you'll never forget but hardly remember.”