Broward County, Florida Bars Curfew: Federal Judge Overturns Rules

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Broward County’s bars will resume late-night operations despite rising coronavirus hospitalization rates following a federal court ruling that lifted restrictions on serving alcohol and food after midnight.

District Judge Raag Singhal this week overturned Browards’ rules that prohibited bars and restaurants from selling alcohol and groceries on-site between midnight and 5 a.m. The rules were introduced in October to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Singhal noted that the restrictions violated Governor Ron DeSantis’ September mandate that “no COVID-19 emergency ordinance should prevent a person from working or running a business”.

The judge called Broward’s restrictions “arbitrary” and said the county had not produced enough evidence to show the ban on nighttime bar drinking had a measurable impact on the COVID outbreak.

Broward County’s Mayor Steve Geller told The Times that the county plans to appeal the ruling. He claims the restrictions were a sensible measure to prevent overcrowded bars where people would be cautious as the night progressed.

“When people have too much to drink, they can do stupid things like not wearing their masks. They can also get more bellicose when the bar owners ask them to put on their masks,” explains Geller.

“I ask young people to realize that there is a global pandemic. It is not a normal time,” added the mayor. “We’re not trying to be the city in that movie Footloose where they say, ‘No dancing allowed.’ We’re just saying there’s a global pandemic. “

Broward enacted its rules three weeks after DeSantis issued its executive order suspending mask penalties and preventing local governments from overriding its mandates by closing companies to contain the outbreak.

Geller says he has worked with staff at the governor’s office to find common ground on how to tackle the pandemic, but that given DeSantis’ blanket mandate, it has been difficult to tackle a local public health crisis.

“Would I prefer if the governor gave local governments more options to take COVID-19 action? Of course I would,” says Geller.

In the trials, Broward’s attorneys argued that the district rules did not conflict with DeSantis’ orders, as they did not fully close the bars during the midnight to 5am lockdown period.

But the judge was undeterred. Singhal stated that Broward bars “cannot stay open effectively when the serving of food and drink is prohibited”. He issued an injunction against the county on Monday.

Geller said the ruling leaves the door open for the county to reintroduce its rules when more evidence of their effectiveness and a breakdown of their economic impact comes in.

The case was filed by local bars and businesses including Capone’s, The Hub, Sway Nightclub, Lucky’s Tavern, Ebar Club 13, Shato No. 00, Euro Night Club, Grand Cafe Inc., and Hollywood Live. Plaintiffs said they would have to lay off employees if the county cuts its lucrative late-night business hours. They claimed the county rules were unconstitutional and unfairly restricted bars while allowing other businesses to operate all night.

The Broward litigation is now part of a patchwork of Florida jurisdiction setting the limits of what local governments can do to contain the outbreak without violating the governor’s preemption order.

Last month, a midnight to 6 a.m. curfew in Miami-Dade County was upheld by an appeals court ruling against Tootsies Cabaret, a strip club that lost its business due to the curfew. The appeals court ruled that because the stores were not “completely closed”, the curfew was permissible by order of DeSantis.

“If the governor had intended to prevent local governments from imposing curfews, he could have said so,” wrote Judge Fleur Lobree for the Third District Court of Appeals.

That decision is binding in Miami-Dade and Monroe counties, which means similar government curfew challenges are likely to stall in those areas.

Although the Broward Bars lawsuit used language almost identical to the Tootsies lawsuit, it led to divergent analyzes by the presiding judges. The cases also have different appeal procedures, as Tootsie’s lawsuit was brought in a state court while the Broward case was tried in federal court.

Although the number of COVID-related hospital stays in South Florida continued to rise this month, DeSantis has not signaled that any easing of the pre-emptive decision is imminent.

Nearly 500 COVID hospital stays were reported in Broward as of December 23, according to the Florida Atlantic University (FAU) database. That number was less than 230 at the end of October. At the height of the summer surge in infections, Browards’ daily COVID hospitalization reached more than 1,300, according to FAU statistics.

The rate of positive COVID tests was 8.6 percent nationwide earlier this week – about half that of the summer, but well above the 5 percent benchmark commonly viewed as the point at which transmission is under control .

Other key benchmarks the state cited in its reopening plan – such as the incidence of respiratory disease in hospitals – are on the rise. However, DeSantis only appears to focus on the benchmarks when they are cheap, as it did in late September when it announced the start of Phase 3 of the reopening. The subsequent deterioration hardly sparked a word of alarm from the governor, much less a rollback.

Broward County has a temporary curfew for the holidays so nighttime bars and restaurants may not fully resume until the New Year. The curfew runs from midnight to 5 a.m. from December 25 to January 4, except on New Years Eve and Christmas Eve when the curfew starts at 1 a.m.

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Izzy Kapnick is a freelance writer for the Miami New Times, specializing in environmental law, white collar crime, and the healthcare industry. Since 2008 he has been working as a legal news reporter in South Florida.

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