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Some Tampa Bay restaurants choosing to close amid safety concerns and dwindling sales

With new coronavirus cases in Florida increasing and no pullback from the state, some Tampa Bay restaurants are closing voluntarily for now.

A few weeks after reopening her downtown St. Petersburg ice cream parlor to dine-in business, Story Stuart saw something she couldn’t unsee.

The 27-year-old owner of Beans & Barlour watched as six young women shared one ice cream cone between the group, each one taking a few licks before passing it onto the next person.

It seemed pretty unsavory even in the best of times, she thought, but in the middle of a pandemic?

The shared ice cream incident wasn’t the only thing making her queasy. Despite taking a slow and staggered approach to reopening, diners and downtown bar hoppers often crowded into the front portion of her shop, despite the staff’s best efforts to impose strict social distancing parameters.

With COVID-19 cases spiking throughout Florida and a staff of several immunocompromised employees, running a business that hinged on close contact between people just didn’t seem worth the risk.

“I think we all felt pretty uncomfortable being so busy,” Stuart said. “You can post the rules, but actually enforcing the rules is so hard especially when people are drinking. No matter what any business owner says, you cannot control people.”

Stuart decided to close the dine-in portion of her business, which focuses on boozy ice cream treats and craft coffee drinks. Instead, the spot has pivoted to made-to-order ice cream cakes, bottled cocktails and ice cream pints to-go, all of which can be ordered online and scheduled for pickup.

Stuart isn’t alone: Absent any reopening rollbacks at the state or local level, a growing number of Tampa Bay restaurant owners are deciding to temporarily close their businesses, either shutting the doors altogether or staying open for to-go and delivery service. Their reasons vary, but usually include some combination of general safety concerns, declining sales and an increasing number of restaurant employees testing positive for the virus.

It’s not an easy decision. Restaurants must weigh the potential health consequences of staying open or close and potentially risk losing their business altogether. Many restaurant owners are still trying to dig themselves out of the financial hole caused by a roughly six-week state-mandated shutdown, and most have said that the funds from the federal Payment Protection Program won’t be enough to sustain the industry in the long run, especially for those who have received little to no rent abatement from their landlords.

As states across the country roll back or pause their opening plans, Gov. Ron DeSantis has opposed the idea of scaling back Florida’s opening despite the record number of new cases reported in the state. On Monday, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez announced he would be shutting down restaurants for dine-in service starting July 8. Though Florida bars were ordered to stop selling alcohol on-site on June 26, as of Tuesday, no plans to shut down restaurants in Tampa Bay has been announced.

With little guidance on how to weather the pandemic, restaurant owners have essentially been tasked with becoming public health professionals overnight, something many owners say is an unnecessary and unfair burden on their business.

“I opened a restaurant because I wanted to feed people, not because I wanted to figure out whether they live or die,” said Russell Andrade, who owns the downtown St. Petersburg restaurant and bar Iberian Rooster.

A bartender makes a cocktail at the Iberian Rooster in St. Petersburg in December. The restaurant has chosen to close to dine-in service.

Andrade decided to close the restaurant in June for “at least a month,” while he works on redesigning the menu to be a more pandemic-friendly quick-service concept.

“I don’t want to have servers that are within six feet of the customer,” Andrade said. “I don’t see dining being a thing long term, especially now when we’re hitting 11,000 cases in a day.”

There is currently no law requiring restaurants to take any kind of action when employees test positive for the coronavirus . Restaurants around Tampa Bay have handled the increasingly common situation differently.

Some, like Tampa’s Counter Culture and Olivia, publicly announced COVID-19 exposures at their restaurants and then closed for a period of deep cleaning and employee testing before reopening. Others, like Cask Social and Rooster and the Till, are still waiting for a full roster of employees to test negative before reopening.

Restaurants like Cappy’s Pizza and Yummy House have closed their dining rooms as a precaution, opting to stay open for takeout.

Diners at Yummy House in Tampa in 2018. [ Times (2018) ]

Yummy House owner John Zhao said that while none of his employees tested positive for COVID-19, several roommates and family members of a few of his employees did. And even though he was subjecting his employees to three temperature checks a day, staying open felt like too much of a gamble.

“We can’t avoid it,” Zhao said. “There are just too many people out there — I can’t take the risk.”

Still, closing was not an easy choice. By reverting to a takeout and delivery-only operation, Zhao said he had to lay off 80 percent of the staff from his Tampa restaurants.

“You lose money, but what can you do?” he said. “The state or the government has to help us out. There’s no way the restaurant industry can do this for five months. They have to come up with something, or it’s all going to die.”

For some owners with multiple businesses, the options vary depending on the location. After an employee tested positive at Iron Oak New American BBQ, owners Zach and Christina Feinstein decided to close the Palm Harbor restaurant over the weekend. They said they will reopen after a deep cleaning and once all of their employees have tested negative, but for take-out only.

Server Nate Combs, right, busses a table at Iron Oak New American BBQ in downtown Palm Harbor. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

The couple also run Dunedin restaurants the Black Pearl, the Living Room on Main, and Sonder Social Club, all of which remain open for dine-in customers, where they say the local support for their businesses has been better.

That’s the other component of this: Since coronavirus cases began increasing dramatically in June, restaurant owners said they’ve noticed a sharp decline in clientele. The steep dip in sales, coupled with the fact that several employees tested positive for COVID-19, prompted Stephen Schrutt to temporarily close his businesses, which include the Avenue, Park & Rec in Tampa, Park & Rec DTSP and No Vacancy.

“We reopened for a weekend and the sales were literally 10 percent of what we’re really used to,” Schrutt said. “I decided to pull the plug — it wasn’t worth it.”

Schrutt said he had originally planned to reopen the Avenue with limited hours this week, but after seeing the numbers continue to spike, he changed his mind. He’s not sure when he’ll reopen.

“I keep wanting to open soon but we are really trying to make sure this gets under control before we go back to business,” he said. “I felt like, really, if you can’t operate and our staff can’t really make a living, why are we going to put ourselves at risk?”

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