Shortly after 5 p.m. on Wednesday, Brick and Mortar owner Hope Montgomery got big news: Following a six-week shutdown, Gov. Ron DeSantis would allow restaurants in most of Florida to reopen on Monday — less than a week away.
Then, the phone rang.
“As soon as the news came out yesterday, someone called and tried to make a reservation next week,” said Montgomery, who owns the St. Petersburg restaurant with her husband Jason Ruhe. “I thought, ‘Uh-oh, we got to get a game plan right away.’ ”
Montgomery wasn’t the only person floored by the governor’s announcement. On Thursday, restaurant owners across the Tampa Bay area were still grappling with how to make sense of the news, the latest in a series of surprises that have come to define the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
On May 4, following a roughly six-week shutdown, restaurants in Tampa Bay will be allowed to open their dining rooms and patios with limited capacity. Under the new order, which is similar to a recently announced mandate in Dallas, Texas, restaurants must limit their seating capacity inside to 25 percent. There are no capacity limits for outside seating, which is encouraged, but tables must be placed at least six feet apart and parties larger than 10 are not allowed. Bar seating is also not permitted, inside or outside.
Montgomery, who together with Ruhe also runs the new restaurant Sea Worthy Fish + Bar in Tierra Verde, said she was optimistic about the news, but was still on the fence about opening either spot. Would it be worth the limited amount of business that a quarter of their regular occupancy would allow for?
It’s a sentiment being voiced by several in the industry.
“Twenty-five percent is kind of the opposite of what you want in a restaurant,” Montgomery said. “But it’s definitely a helpful step. We’re hoping to cautiously move forward in a smart way. We certainly don’t want to move too fast to where there’s another flare up and we have to shut down all over again.”
For a restaurant the size of Brick and Mortar, which seats about 75 people in its main dining room, opening would mean less than 20 people could dine at one time. Nearby Italian restaurant Il Ritorno would have similar numbers. That’s hardly enough to keep the business going, said Il Ritorno owner David Benstock. It would also mean launching an entirely new business plan from scratch again, retooling the concept that has been keeping his employees afloat the past six weeks.
Like many other Tampa Bay restaurants during the shutdown, Benstock revamped his business as a to-go operation. Between his three restaurants — Greenstock and Il Ritorno in St. Petersburg, and Whitney’s in Longboat Key — the chef said he’s been successful enough to rehire a good chunk of his staff.
"Right now we have a model that’s sustaining the restaurant,” he said. “We’ve been doing this and have figured out a way to keep people employed.”
That’s part of the reason why Wednesday’s news received mixed reviews from the restaurant community. Some places are scrambling to rethink business plans, reorganize seating and rehire staff by Monday, while others said they would stay closed despite the new order. Even within restaurant companies, there was a divide on which places to open and which to bring slowly back to life.
David Laxer, who owns Bern’s Steak House as well as Haven and B&G Little Midway, said that only Haven would be reopening on Monday while his other businesses remain closed.
“Although we hope to open as soon as possible, Bern’s Steak House will not open on Monday,” Laxer said. “Our opening date will be determined when we can safely adhere to the proper guidelines for the safety of guests and staff, in conjunction with again changing our business model to now incorporate both to-go and dine in patrons. This will require more planning and time.”
Laxer cited Haven’s two outdoor patios, which would allow for six-foot distancing between tables, as part of the decision to open that business and not the others.
Richard Gonzmart praised DeSantis’ decision but said the Columbia Restaurant Group’s Tampa restaurants would not reopen on Monday.
“While we’re now allowed to reopen, we will decide what that means for each of our restaurants," Gonzmart said. “It might mean takeout or outside seating at some of our locations, but it’s too soon to know what or when. Whatever happens will be gradual, and safe for our guests and staff.”
The new directive hasn’t come without controversy. Some restaurant owners, like Mise en Place’s Maryann Ferenc, complained the abrupt announcement didn’t provide enough details or guidelines for restaurant owners to be able to inform their staff or customers of all the regulations and new requirements.
“One of the suggestions that I have made is a card, signed by the governor, the commissioner and the mayor, that says, ‘Here are the rules,’ ” Ferenc said. “So that when we are standing somewhere with guests who aren’t following the rules we can point to that. Because the policing is really going to be up to us.”
For the past few weeks, national restaurant advisory groups and industry experts, including chefs, restaurant owners and journalists, have been speculating about what a post-COVID-19 world could like for restaurants. Many, including acclaimed chef and food television star David Chang, have looked to Hong Kong for guidance, where restaurant openings were accompanied by strict social distancing and health precautionary measures, including temperature checks for both guests and employees, masks and gloves for all staff, zero bar seating and widely spaced seating throughout dining rooms.
But while a state task force commissioned to provide recommendations has offered some additional guidelines, DeSantis’ executive order includes scant information for how restaurants should proceed with their reopening beyond the initial capacity limits. Restaurants that don’t abide by the guidelines do face an enforcement penalty that includes a second-degree misdemeanor charge and a fine of up to $500.
Masks are not required to be worn by restaurant employees under the new order, and neither are gloves. The task force recommended masks, as well the practice of switching to single-use menus and screening employees before shifts. But nothing is required by law, leaving the decisions largely up to restaurant owners, and to diners who will have to ultimately decide whether a meal out is worth the risk.
Some Tampa Bay restaurant owners said their staff would wear masks, while others wavered on the topic.
Jeff Gigante, whose Hyde Park restaurant Forbici Modern Italian will reopen on Monday under the new guidelines, said he has ordered a new line of masks for his kitchen employees to wear.
“All the masks we got have been extremely difficult for our kitchen people to use because it’s hard to breathe in, it’s hot and there’s not a lot of air flow,” Gigante said.
“Certainly our food runners — our food expeditors — will be wearing masks," he said. "Everybody touching food will be. We’re going to take the maximum precautions with a lot of glove use, single-use menus and sanitizing constantly. We’re going to take every precaution that is going to make sure we keep our customers and our employees safe.”
At Italian restaurant Donatello in Tampa, proprietor Gino Tiozzo said he was still figuring out the arrangement for next week’s opening, but said it was unlikely that servers in the dining room would wear masks while others in the kitchen probably would.
“Captains (senior servers), I’ll have them stay in the dining rooms and they won’t go in the kitchen,” Tiozzo said. “I think it would be awkward to speak through a mask.”
Tiozzo said he was still weighing other options, including how to handle payment and whether employees would be required to wear gloves or not. Because the restaurant was able to secure a loan under the federal Paycheck Protection Program, all of Donatello’s staff has already been rehired, which will help support employees who — like others in the industry — may be looking at much smaller paychecks over the next few months.
“We don’t really know what to expect,” Tiozzo said. “Operating at 25 percent is not a winning battle, we’re not going to make any money. But 25 is better than zero.”
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