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Mixed reaction among Jacksonville restaurant owners to lifting of COVID-19 restrictions
| Florida Times-Union
Days after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis eliminated capacity limits at the state’s restaurants and bars, Jacksonville restaurant owners concerned about a potential resurgence of the coronavirus won’t return to full capacity in their dining rooms for the foreseeable future.
It’s better to be safe than sorry when it comes to their customers and staff, they said.
“Just because we want COVID to be gone, it’s not,” said Allison D’Aurizio, baker and co-owner of 1748 Bakehouse in historic Springfield.
The popular artisanal bakery and cafe plans to stay at its current 50 percent capacity cap “for the foreseeable future,” D’Aurizio told the Times-Union.
“The safety of ourselves, staff and customers is more important than a few more seats,” she said. “Our customers still are showing up for us, eating in when we have an open table, getting takeout, shopping in our bodega, and ordering family meals to go.”
1748 Bakehouse isn’t alone. Other Jacksonville restaurants and at least one independent movie theater also plan to continue operating under a reduced capacity.
“We are not going to go back to 100 percent immediately. Honestly, we think it’s a little too soon, but we will ease back into it,” said Joseph “Joe” Adeeb III, owner of Bono’s Pit Bar-B-Q, one of the oldest and largest restaurant chains founded in Jacksonville.
Restaurants sharing those sentiments include Taverna San Marco, Prati Italia, Town Hall and The Bearded Pig.
Sun-Ray Cinema in Five Points plans to remain operating at 20 percent capacity. Its nearby restaurant, Pizza Cave, also will remain at a similar limited capacity, said Shana David-Massett, who co-owns the two establishments with her husband, Tim.
Taverna implemented a work-around Sunday designed to allow them to safely serve brunch customers who routinely line up for a table at the restaurant in historic San Marco Square.
“We moved our extra tables outdoors allowing for ample patio and sidewalk dining,” said Kiley Wynne Efron, Taverna wine director and co-owner with her husband, Executive Chef Sam Efron.
The restaurateurs don’t have “any plans to increase to 100 percent capacity at this time.”
“We will continue to provide additional space between our indoor tables, allowing our guests to social distance safely while still offering plenty of seating for our guests,” Kiley Efron said.
Some Jacksonville restaurants, though, welcomed customers back at or near 100 percent capacity.
Monday morning, almost every table had customers at Maple Street Biscuit Company in historic San Marco Square. The breakfast and brunch restaurant has returned to operating at 100 percent capacity.
“We felt that we could do it safely,” said Mindy Schieb, community leader for the restaurant. Maple Street has both indoor and outdoor seating, socially distanced apart. All employees also were wearing face masks, as were customers as they ordered their meals.
“We want to be here for our community. …We felt that with the amount of sales that we’re doing right now, we could do it,” Schieb said, noting the restaurant managed to stay open through the pandemic. “We’re just here to serve the community.”
Metro Diner decided to operate at 80 percent capacity. The Hendricks Avenue and Roosevelt Boulevard locations each had a steady stream of customers during the weekend and on Monday.
“We are running at 80% of our capacity as allowed by the state which has resulted in eliminating tables and socially distancing others,” Hugh Connerty, Metro Diner co-chairman, said in an email to the Times-Union.
“We continue to be vigilant on all safe sanitation and food handling practices within the diner which includes frequent sanitation, daily wellness checks and our team members wearing a face covering at all times,” Connerty said.
Governor eliminates restrictions
Gov. Ron DeSantis on Friday lifted all state restrictions limiting Florida restaurants, bars and other businesses, including the 50 percent occupancy cap intended to reduce exposure to the COVID-19 virus.
All businesses are immediately allowed to resume operating at 100 percent occupancy, according to DeSantis’s executive order.
Florida restaurants and bars may increase their occupancy up to 100 percent but they aren’t required to do so. The executive order, however, requires municipalities and counties to justify any local restrictions that are tougher than the state regulations.
“Every business has the right to operate. If some of the locals, they can do reasonable regulation, but you can’t just say ‘no’ after six months and just have people twisting in the wind,” DeSantis said in announcing his executive order.
The order also prohibits local governments from collecting fines stemming from such pandemic-related mandates as mask requirements.
Eliminating the statewide restrictions are part of the third and final phase of reopening Florida for business, DeSantis said.
Restaurateurs remain wary
“Other countries have seen a sharp second wave of the virus. If we were to follow that pattern, we won’t have as much of a disruption for our customers and us,” said 1748 Bakehouse’s D’Aurizio.
The COVID-19 pandemic produced a series of months-long mandates on bars, restaurants and retail stores including occupancy caps, face mask requirements and social distancing regulations.
Some restaurant and movie theater owners continue to take other precautions against the virus, including requiring employees to wear face masks and gloves and utilizing enhanced cleaning and sanitation procedures. Most also require guests to wear face masks.
“What the governor said Friday makes absolutely no difference to our theater operations whatsoever at this point,” Sun-Ray’s Shanna David-Massett said.
She said their face mask requirement is non-negotiable.
“It’s our theater and if we have to ask you to wear a mask then it’s not the theater for you,” David-Massett said.
Prati Italia and Town Hall continue to monitor the “pacing and spacing” of the dining rooms to see what is best for its staff and guests.
“We are still looking to maintain a level of social distancing but will increase capacity above 50 percent,” said owners Chef Tom Gray and his wife and business partner, Sarah Marie Johnston.
In addition, they are continuing other precautions such as daily temperature checks for staff as well as requiring employees to wear face masks and gloves. Johnston said there’s no timetable for returning to 100 percent occupancy. They are evaluating the situation daily, she said.
A veteran restaurateur, Bono’s owner Adeeb said it’s understandable that some restaurants choose to immediately resume operating at full occupancy.
“This has been uncharted waters for all of us …. People are fed up with this [pandemic]. But I think until we truly have a vaccine it’s going to be like this,” Adeeb said.
Rough road to reopening
Florida restaurants and bars have been among the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. The road to fully reopening has been a rocky six months.
- Sept. 14 — The Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation allowed bars to reopen at 50 percent capacity.
- June 26 — DeSantis ordered bars statewide closed as COVID-19 cases continued to ravage the state.
- May 18 — The state allowed restaurants and retail stores to have 50 percent indoor capacity.
- May 4 — Most Florida restaurants and retail stores were allowed to reopen at 25 percent occupancy indoors.
- April 1 — DeSantis imposes a 30-day statewide lockdown.
- March 20 — DeSantis shuts down all restaurant dining rooms but allows takeout service.