‘What better day … than the Fourth of July?’

Peaceful protests planned on small businesses’ behalf

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News
OKEECHOBEE COUNTY — A couple of helpers assemble a new awning for the stage out back of Butch’s. Part of the establishment’s new Tiki Tours pontoon boat is in the background.

OKEECHOBEE COUNTY — A peaceful protest is planned to take place Saturday evening, July 4, in the parking lots at Back to Butch’s Bar & Fish Camp on U.S. 441 Southeast. Other small business owners around Okeechobee have said they’ll participate or to have their own peaceful protest gatherings, according to Back to Butch’s owner Jeffrey Kennedy.

“We’re going to have this protest because they’re taking our rights from us, and what better day to have it than on the Fourth of July?” he said.

“I want to announce this protest is taking place,” he said. “My employees are just beside themselves right now. They don’t know what they’re going to do … or where their next meal is coming from!”

Bars, nightclubs and taverns in most counties statewide had been allowed to open beginning Saturday, June 6, when Gov. Ron DeSantis announced that all but the most populous counties could move into phase two of the planned reopening of Florida businesses — i.e., except Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties. Their reopening, though, was short-lived when the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation chief stated on Twitter Friday morning, June 26, that DBPR was shutting off alcohol sales for on-site consumption starting at noon that day, statewide.

Only establishments that derived more than 50% of their revenue from food are allowed to continue selling alcoholic beverages for on-site consumption.

“It’s only bars and nightclubs? Why? Why not gyms? Why not barbershops? Why just bars? I’ve had it with this stuff,” said Kennedy, agitatedly. “It’s not fair to me, and most of all it’s not fair to my employees.”

Plus, he added: “It’s not fair to the average person who wants to go hoist a beer with their friends on the Fourth of July. This is America!”

He and many other local small business owners and all their employees and families are suffering, said Kennedy, and they roundly dislike the governor’s backtracking.

“Our governor told me on the TV screen a couple of weeks ago, ‘We’re not going backwards. We’re not closing anything down again.’ And then a week later, you’re telling me I have to close down and I can’t sell a beer. If I can sell a hot dog, why can’t I sell a beer?”

One of his employees, barmaid Karen Shelton, said: “Now I’m unemployed again; I have no income. You know, you get tipped every day, you get that money … and you depend on that money every day. Now, it’s been six days and I’m not making a dime — but bills still have to be paid. My car payment, my rent, my electric bill still needs to be paid.” She was unable to claim state unemployment benefits after the first shutdown March 17 and, after June 6, was straining to catch up with expenses since.

Kennedy has been vocal on social media about the protest. He and several assistants were building a canopy covering June 27 for a stage near the boat moorings behind the bar, and several new picnic tables were lined up to be placed at acceptable physical distance. Back to Butch’s has hosted live music there or at their tiki patio bar nearly every weekend since it’s been open. Many fundraisers for various causes have taken place … but soon, he said, he might even host to have a fundraiser for his employees.

He said he’s especially frustrated because there’s no indication from the state about how long this latest shutdown might last, noting that if he tried to open, he would lose his license or it would be suspended.

“I already feel like I’m suspended,” Kennedy said.

They had to replace all the six kegs he’d bought for St. Patrick’s Day, which languished and went bad after they were tapped — for just that previous weekend as the governor’s order was effective at noon on the holiday.

Those kegs went to waste because he couldn’t return or sell them, and he had to replace them in early June for the brief reopening. Now they’re tapped and he can’t sell them as full, so he taped them closed and put them up for sale.

Kennedy said he’ll be following all the rules on his end for having this protest gathering; masks and social distancing are not only encouraged but picnic tables and moorings on the water will be marked to abide by health authorities’ guidelines.

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