Bar owner T.J. Palmieri was close to rehiring three people from his 10-person crew. But after his business was reprimanded by a government agency, he thought he had no choice but to shut down.
On Wednesday, local restaurants and bars like Palmieri’s were told not to sell to-go mixed cocktails by the Florida Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco or they would have to pay fines of $1,000 per drink. To business owners, this conflicted with Gov. Ron DeSantis’ overriding executive order, which banned dining in at restaurants to help slow the spread of COVID-19, but allowed businesses to quickly switch to takeout and delivery, including covered to-go drinks, to stay financially afloat.
“It feels like we're being picked on,” said Palmieri, 39, the owner of downtown cocktail bar Madrina’s in downtown Gainesville.
Typically, whether guests could drink the alcohol on or offsite would have been determined by the type of alcoholic beverage license the venue had. But to accommodate for not being able to consume drinks in-house during the COVID-19 outbreak, DeSantis’ executive order 20-71 stated that “vendors may continue to sell alcoholic beverages in sealed containers for consumption off-premises.”
The Gainesville alcoholic beverages division directed media contact to the Tallahassee office, and the state division was unavailable as of Sunday afternoon after numerous attempts to try and reach them by email and phone.
Still, a division inspector told Palmieri that he was violating the order and that he didn’t have a manufacturing license to sell the cocktails in containers, which were sterilized and capped like grocery store milk gallons.
“It's kind of crazy that I was given this document that says I was violating the order by doing exactly what the order had intended,” Palmieri said.
While the manufacturing details weren’t mentioned in the government’s executive order, the state’s alcohol and tobacco division said that alcoholic beverage vendors could not sell to-go mixed drinks if they didn’t have the license to make the alcohol themselves.
With the threat of a forced shutdown for Madrina’s, Palmieri worried that he had cocktail containers that he could no longer use, which cost the bar about $1,000, during a time where local businesses were feeling the pinch from the effects of COVID-19.
“Not only are we losing our potential sales that we were saving, we're also losing the money that we invested to be able to do it,” he said.
Kristin Amron, the head bartender at Dragonfly Sushi & Sake Company in downtown Gainesville, also noted significant business losses. The former 60-person staff of servers, cooks and bartenders was whittled down to 17 including management, she said.
She was told by a Dragonfly house manager that the division wouldn’t let the sushi restaurant sell to-go cocktails because the containers didn’t have warning labels about the health risks of consuming alcohol. The labels in the U.S. are supposed to discourage pregnant women from drinking and warn people about driving impaired. However, the executive order failed to mention labeling or provide resources to label drinks.
“The mandate was very gray,” said Amron, 40. “There was no mention of having to follow certain rules or regulations.”
Although Dragonfly Sushi still had sushi and bottled beer and wine to sell, Amron was concerned that customers would drink too much alcohol without the bartenders’ ready-made ingredient portions. Dragonfly planned to continue adapting by selling non-alcoholic drink kits that people could mix with alcohol they have at home.
“We have no intention of shutting down until we absolutely have to,” she said.
Ken Peng, the 34-year-old creator of the food blog Ken Eats Gainesville, said he has shifted his efforts from general food news to updating the community on the health of the restaurant industry during the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Thursday afternoon, the state Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco still said that restaurants could not sell to-go cocktails. But by Thursday evening, Peng posted on Facebook that the division was rethinking their policies after meeting with the governor.
Now, the division is letting restaurants sell alcoholic beverages in any type of container.
When Peng found out about the fines for selling to-go alcoholic beverages Wednesday from Madrina’s, Dragonfly Sushi and gastropub Public & General, he said he also didn’t understand the division’s motivation considering the governor’s executive order.
“I'm really flabbergasted by the whole situation,” he said. “It's clear as day saying that you're allowed to sell alcohol to-go.”
During the pandemic, Peng was especially thinking of how it would affect new food places, such as Luke's New York Bagels at 620 S. Main St., which opened on Wednesday.
Peng pledged to support at least one local eatery each day and urged his social media followers to contact the governor’s office about the ban on to-go mixed drinks.
However, the surprise crackdown and quick reversal of enforcement decisions came as a shock to local businesses.
“This thing kind of came out of nowhere and is like a huge kick to the gut to a lot of them,” Peng said.
Contact Samantha Chery at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @SammyChery4276.