For restaurants, the closures and restrictions that resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic have been a day-to-day negotiation. When Governor DeSantis first mandated 50% capacity then finally the shutdown of all dine-in service, some restaurants had a contingency plan in place. Genie and Jeff McNally, the owners of The Floridian, had been following the industry developments all over the country and anticipated Florida’s closure. They, like many other local spots, continued carryout service, but with a 75% reduction in sales from April to the beginning of May, they were operating with a skeleton crew. Sunset Grille also remained opened for carryout, but they too felt a serious blow. “The effect of the closure was and still is devastating to all of the 100+ people that work here,” says Peter Darios. “It will take us a long time to recover financially.”
Other restaurants – like World Famous Oasis, Prohibition Kitchen, and Pizzalley’s – shut down entirely, and the spring break-adjacent closure had an enormous impact. The Colonial Quarter’s restaurants on St. George closed their doors on March 17th, and two days later officially furloughed their more than 70 employees, including management. Prohibition Kitchen and Pizzalley’s closed after the city shut down trolley service. “We didn’t try to do takeout because everyone was scared from town,” says Alex Murphy. “It was unlikely people would even come downtown for pickup, so we stayed closed to see what would happen – only expecting about two weeks closed at that point.”
In the weeks since, the industry has experienced daily changes as governing bodies reevaluate restrictions and statewide conditions. At the beginning of May, restaurants were allowed to reopen their dining rooms at 25% capacity. Many residents want to support the local restaurant industry but are still concerned – after all, the pandemic isn’t over. So even with the lifting of the strictest mandates, restaurants are taking added precautions beyond even the CDC’s guidelines to ensure the health and safety of their patrons.
Keeping their indoor dining room closed, The Floridian has masked, gloved, and freshly-scrubbed servers on hand to take orders from their host station and are training and updating staff weekly on appropriate health measures. They have also adjusted their outdoor seating to be the appropriate distance apart and outlined entrance and exit points. Sunset Grille extended the backs of all their upstairs outdoor booth seating in order to create a barrier and partition between every booth. They also installed UV lights in their AC units and have switched to disposable paper menus, single-use condiments, and wrapped utensils.
Prohibition Kitchen and Pizzalley’s, too, have switched to single-use menus. They are also requiring all staff to wear face masks and to have their temperature taken and logged before each shift. Though they did not resume service during Florida’s Phase One reopening, the restaurants at the Colonial Quarter also set a strict plan for service – masks, gloves, and temperature checks for staff, hands-free sanitizer stations, social distancing-friendly seating, and disposable menus. World Famous Oasis took the time of their closure to deep clean the restaurant and all equipment and are offering masks and gloves to any customer that needs them.
When it comes down to it, health and safety has always been a paramount concern in the industry. And though the stakes are higher now and the precautions are different, local restaurants have always practiced the protection of their guests. “As professionals in the hospitality industry,” says Jason Pilacek of the Colonial Quarter, “our number one concern has always been to do everything we can to ensure the safety of our patrons.”
Restaurants are a cornerstone of our community. And even though we are still in the midst of the pandemic, restaurants are doing their best to serve the city – with safety as the priority. “Our industry (and our town, which thrives due to all businesses in the tourism sector) has been one of the hardest-hit,” says Genie McNally. “The only path forward is through the support of locals.”
Featured image of Brewz N Dawgz by Ed Taylor