Local bars ready to welcome patrons

Co-owners Dean and Maggie Gunter add labels and shrink caps to bottles of Chardonnay and then place the wine in boxes at Dragon Flower Winery in Summerfield.

Florida bars are reopening again. Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation Secretary Halsey Beshears signed an executive order Thursday allowing bars in the state to resume the sale and service of alcoholic beverages on the premises starting today. Bars will have to operate at 50% capacity. Gov. Ron DeSantis hosted round tables with owners of Florida bars, breweries and restaurants, including Sept. 3 in St. Petersburg and on Thursday in Fort Myers, to discuss COVID-19 and the impact it has had on their businesses. Many bars and breweries in The Villages and the surrounding area that were affected by an executive order from the Florida DBPR in June came up with alternative ways to keep business going. Establishments that have a food license and derive less than 50% of their revenue from selling alcohol were not affected when the Florida DBPR on June 26 ordered on-premise consumption of alcohol suspended in response to the rising cases of COVID-19 at the time. That came three weeks after DeSantis had signed an executive order June 5 allowing bars to reopen to the public at limited capacity.

But bars were able to sell alcohol in sealed containers for customers to drink off-site, according to an order filed by the department.

The Corkscrew Winery in Spanish Springs was one business that remained open even after the Florida DBPR’s previous order, because the establishment is licensed to sell food. It also earns its revenue from beer and wine making, clothing and alcohol sales.

Business also has been picking up week to week.

Even though the winery has been operating for some time, Tim Allen, owner of the Corkscrew Winery, is glad to hear the news that bars that hadn’t been able to sell and serve alcohol on premises can do so now.

“I think it’s wonderful because everybody should get a chance to reopen up,” Allen said.

Maggie and Dean Gunter, who own Dragon Flower Winery in Summerfield, worked to get a food license to serve alcohol after DBPR’s June 26 order. The Gunters received their food license Aug. 21. The winery also is selling alcoholic beverages to go and for curbside pickup, which is allowed in sealed containers.

Even with all the changes happening with bars, breweries and wineries in the past few months, business has been going well at Dragon Flower Winery.

The winery has been operating at limited capacity. Precautions in place include staff wearing masks and gloves and limited seating.

Even though the new order does not affect Dragon Flower Winery since the winery has been able to operate at limited capacity since receiving its food license, Maggie Gunter is happy that other locations will be able to go back to some normal operations.

The constant change for bars has been a “nightmare,” she said.

“I’m just so glad that that move alone will save some businesses because if we didn’t get our food license, we wouldn’t have made it,” Maggie said. “I’m happy to hear that (bars are) opening, just hopefully people don’t mess it up for everyone else again.”

Darryl Siemer, who owns Whispering Oaks Winery in Oxford with his wife, Erinn, feels the same way.

“I really hope that we’re not premature and that we don’t get a spike and we have to shut down again, because that would be way worse,” Darryl said.

Whispering Oaks Winery also wasn’t affected by the June 26 order from DBPR, but business has still been slower than before COVID-19.

The winery gets revenue not only from alcohol consumption but also from its farm, winery, distribution and manufacturing center and restaurant. The restaurant provides 50% of Whispering Oaks’ revenue. The location also offers curbside pickup of drinks by the bottle.

Frank Calascione, economic development director for Sumter County, welcomed the news of bars reopening.

“I think we have learned over the last few months that with prudent safety measures we can still gather, eat, drink and enjoy these spaces,” Calascione said.

Bars and other food and drink establishments impact the economy in Sumter County as well as the state.

Visitor spending on food and beverage alone was $90.3 million in 2017, according to Visit Florida, the state’s tourism marketing corporation.

“When you think about residents filling the squares and downtown areas for food and drink, this is a very important sector of the local economy,” Calascione said. “With cooler weather on the horizon, outdoor seating will become even more enjoyable so that should increase activity as well.”

At Thursday’s round table in Fort Myers, several restaurant owners in attendance discussed the restaurant industry and how the pandemic has affected business. Florida Department of Health has recorded more than 650,000 COVID-19 cases.

The possibility of easing the restrictions on restaurants in the state, which are operating at 50% indoors and placing tables 6 feet apart, was discussed.

DeSantis feels the current restaurant restrictions are “arbitrary,” he said, during Thursday’s round table.

“Why 50 (percent) and not 40? Why 50 and not 70?” he said, also discussing different distancing taking place in various regions around the world.

Dean Turner, director of operations for Cody’s Original Roadhouse, is open to the idea of easing restrictions and raising capacity but doesn’t feel it is wise to go back to 100% just yet.

“Just because you can seat 100% doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do,” Turner said.

The Cody Original Roadhouse restaurants located at Brownwood and Lake Sumter Landing currently are operating at 50% capacity and have tables positioned 6 feet apart to ensure social distancing.

If restaurants can start operating at a higher level, Cody’s will do it strategically.

“I would be welcome to increasing the seating in both of my locations for Cody’s, but also I’m still going to make sure we stay safe with my employees and our guests,” Turner said.

Staff writer Summer Jarro can be reached at 352-753-1119 ext. 5404 or summer.jarro@thevillagesmedia.com.