TAMPA, Fla. -- A local business is getting its alcohol license suspended after the state says it violated an executive order.
Florida’s Department of Business and Professional Regulation (DBPR) is accusing the Pegasus Lounge on Florida Avenue of operating as a standalone bar that didn’t serve food. DBPR says the business “exceeded 50% of its occupancy capacity” and some of the customers were not practicing social distancing on Saturday, August 8.
“Patrons were standing shoulder-to-shoulder while congregating at the bar area being served alcoholic beverages. Social distancing measures were not being enforced. Groups of patrons were also seen in close proximity to one another during a live concert performance.” DBPR said in part in a document.
As of Tuesday, Florida vendors that make more than 50% of their gross revenue from alcohol sales are barred from selling booze amid the state’s emergency order issued on June 26. Restaurants are exempt from the state’s booze ban as long as they make no more than 50% of their gross revenue from sales of alcoholic beverage. They are also only permitted to serve at tables.
According to the Pegasus Lounge’s Facebook page, it operates as a “Local Bar, Music Venue & Liquor Store.”
“One-hundred percent, it’s falsified. I find that not one allegation is correct, possibly there was some congregating at the bar. However, I would challenge that it was a group of people that came together because at 57 people out of a 4,200-square foot place is not shoulder to shoulder so that is so false,” said the business’ owner, Julie Bible.
Bible said she was shocked by the suspension and plans to fight the accusations aggressively.
“We do have some neighbors that hate on us really bad,” said Bible.
Bible said she reopened after receiving a food license in July and was selling different types of hot dogs, loaded nachos and chips with salsa and cheese.
In the notice, DBPR said it provided information on the emergency orders twice before its visit on August 8, when distancing concerns were noted.
Bible said in the first two visits, she was given documents noting she was in compliance. On August 8, she said an agent brought up occupancy but nothing else.
Bible said they were within the capacity limits. She said they may have reached around 75 people, but a 50 percent occupancy would be 98.
“Maybe I’m to be made an example. You think that, gosh all this other places, strip joints are open, all these other restaurants that are now turning into bars and they’re still open. Why did they choose a small establishment like mine? I don’t know. I wish I knew,” she said.
DBPR issued emergency suspensions of alcoholic beverage vendor licenses to three other businesses across the state Tuesday, including one in Orlando, Tallahassee and Estero. To date in total, DBPR has now issued nine emergency suspension orders.
According to the notices, Rusty’s Raw Bar and Grill in Estero is accused of operating at more than 50 percent capacity. DBPR said patrons were “…packed inside and standing shoulder-to-shoulder while congregating at the bar area being served and dancing on the dance floor. Social distancing measures were not being enforced.”
Patrons were served standing in the bar area and standing shoulder-to-shoulder at Mathers, Shots, Joysticks in Orlando and Pockets Pool & Pub in Tallahassee, according to DBPR’s notices.
“They seem to be really extreme cases. I don’t think the Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco or the DPBR have just randomly selected licensees to pursue. I think they’re acting on complaints that they’ve received of really obvious, extreme, blatant disregard for rules they as licensees know are in place and that they know they’re obligated to respect,” said Richard Blau.
Blau is a partner with Gray Robinson and is chairman of the firm’s alcohol, beverage and food law department.
“Given the fact that licensees themselves are certainly on notice that the ability to engage in the business of selling alcohol is legally and factually a privilege, it’s not a right. The state has a great deal of discretion in deciding who qualifies to be an alcohol licensee and when they can continue to operate as a licensee and when you issue these emergency orders, you’ve given these warnings and you have a licensee who nevertheless behaves in the manner alleged in these cases, it’s not surprising to me that the state would feel compelled to take action to ensure the rest of the industry and the state that it means business when it says we’ve got to take these precautions to tamp down this pandemic,” he said.
Blau said there is a legal process for a licensee to appeal the suspension.
“If the facts are as the regulators say, I think these licensees will have a difficult time persuading an appellate court they shouldn’t have been suspended,” Blau said. “The emergent or exigent nature of this pandemic is certainly a weight against an advocate trying to argue that the particular location shouldn’t be suspended for its alcohol sales.”
One person told ABC Action News when they recently walked by Pegasus, they saw a line wrapped around the building.
“There was no social distancing whatsoever. People right behind each other, no six feet, no mask. I see no mask, no anything. It was crazy just to see that and I thought, 'Wow, how is that even possible with everything going on? Why would you guys even do that right now?'” said Tevin Kumar.
Kumar said he was disappointed to see it.
“I hate that the liquor license did get suspended but it needs to happen so that people know this thing is serious,” said Kumar.
“The only time there was a line was Friday night. And yes Friday night had a line because we were only allowing so many people in the building,” said Bible.
Bible said people did wear masks, and that they require patrons to purchase a mask for $1 if they don’t have them. She said they also post CDC Guidelines on the door, have hand sanitizer available and that bartenders wear their masks.
While Pegasus is closed right now, she said her goal is to open back up.
“This is my entire livelihood and this is what I plan to retire with. I’m an older person. I’m not looking to get another job," she said. "I will hopefully open my doors very soon. I don’t know what I’ll do about the people out there that want to continue reporting."
DBPR’s notice stated, “The Suspended Licensee’s continued operation poses an immediate serious danger to the public health, safety or welfare due to the dangers associated with COVID-19.”
Below is the executive order issued by DBPR that would suspend Pegasus Lounge's alcohol license:
Over the last week, DBPR has met with brewery and bar owners to discuss how to safely reopen the industry. As of Tuesday, the state has not announced any changes to the current booze ban.