Michael Wojtowicz wonders whether he’ll ever see a crowd again.
As the events manager at Fermented Reality Biergarten, the large bar at Tampa’s outdoor food hall Sparkman Wharf, gatherings and parties were a central part of his job.
What happens now? What happens next? He’s been mulling over questions like that a lot lately.
He asks the same thing on the many Zoom conference calls he has every two weeks with a group of the bar’s owners and employees. But no one seems to have a solid answer.
“We’re in a huge holding pattern,” Wojtowicz, 42, said. “It’s such a large space, and that’s our biggest worry right now. Am I ever going to see a large crowd again? Are the (Tampa Bay) Lightning ever going to play in front of fans again? Are people even going to want to do that anymore?”
For those who have made a career of hosting large events, the social distancing guidelines that have accompanied the COVID-19 response project a grim future. Wojtowicz’s job at the Channelside attraction included organizing, planning and booking large events at the space, sometimes with hundreds of people.
Wojtowicz, whose last day at the bar was March 17, said the shutdown couldn’t have come at a worse time.
“It started ramping up during Tampa Bay Beer Week,” he recalled. “There was WrestleMania. There was the end of the Lightning season. And then you had spring break — all rolled into one.”
In the two months since the shutdown began, Wojtowicz, who also tended bar at the outdoor space, still hasn’t seen an unemployment check.
“Fifty-one days, three applications, 700-plus phone calls and a whole lot of nothing,” he said.
His stimulus check and tax return finally arrived, and between that and his family’s second income — his wife is a professor at the University of Tampa — Wojtowicz said he has been able to stay afloat.
In the meantime, he’s been spending a lot of time in the kitchen at his Seminole Heights home, tackling projects like homemade limoncello and homemade bao. He catches up with buddies virtually and takes long walks along the river to think. His thoughts always come back to the bar business, and he wonders what the future holds.
“We’re absolutely scared,” he said. “Are people going to want to gather in large spaces? And how hard are we going to have to work to get those people back?”
On May 19, Sparkman Wharf reopened with limited opening hours and capacity. Wojtowicz went back to work at Fermented Reality Biergarten with limited hours while the business operates as a to-go bar. He never received any unemployment benefits.