Protesters want service clubs open

Lake Okeechobee News/Katrina Elsken
OKEECHOBEE — Protesters in downtown Okeechobee on Saturday afternoon called for a change in the Department of Business and Professional Regulation rules. They want service clubs such as the VFW and the Moose Lodge to be treated like restaurants and allowed to serve alcoholic beverages with meals. Currently, they fall into the category with nightclubs and bars.

OKEECHOBEE – A peaceful group of protesters lined both sides of the intersection of U.S. 441 and State Road 70 on Saturday afternoon to protest the state’s ban on alcohol sales at service clubs.

Instead of treating service clubs like restaurants, which were allowed to reopen with reduced capacity, the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation (DBPR) groups service clubs with bars and nightclubs, explained John Denney of the Buckhead Ridge VFW 9528, as he waived a sign in Flagler Park.

“Veterans like their camaraderie,” Denney said. “We’re not like the younger nightclub crowd. We observe social distancing and reduced occupancy.”

He said since the service clubs were closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the veterans have missed the fellowship of the clubs. “Some of our guys, that’s all they have,” he said. “These guys are World War II veterans, Korean War veterans, Vietnam vets.”

He said under the DBPR rules, the clubs can still sell food but alcoholic beverages can only be sold “to go.”

It makes little sense the public can go to a restaurant and enjoy a cheeseburger with a beer, but the veterans can’t do the same at their service clubs.

He said the service clubs don’t stay open past 10 p.m, “Why are we grouped with nightclubs?”

His wife, Pam, explained the VFW has a nonprofit liquor license. She said the rule that allowed restaurants to serve alcoholic beverages while selling food “doesn’t apply to us.”

Denney said the Buckhead Ridge VFW tried to stay open five to six days a week with no alcohol sales and could not cover the overhead.

Across the street, on the sidewalk in front of Walgreens, Beckly DelSanto waived at cars as drivers honked their horns in support of the veterans.

She said the Buckhead Ridge Moose Lodge stayed open for food service only so they could still provide food for the community.

“I just don’t think it’s right,” she said. “Veterans didn’t ask to be drafted, and now they’re being told they can’t go to their private clubs.

“At least the VFW needs to be open,” she added.

Robert Burns pointed out that service clubs like the Moose Lodges give back to the community. “We practice social distancing more so in our clubs than they do in the restaurants in town,” he said. Burns said they maintained distance between customers, clean each area between customers and throughly sanitize the building every day.

DelSanto said the Moose Lodge liquor license is for on site consumption only, but with the new DPBR rules they can only sell alcoholic beverages in containers to be consumed outside the building. “Does that make any sense?” she asked.

She said some of the clubs might not survive the shutdown.

The protest included members of the Buckhead Ridge Moose Lodge, the Okeechobee Moose Lodge, the VFW Post 9528 in Buckhead Ridge and VFW Post 4423 in Okeechobee as well as family members and supporters.

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