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How are Tampa Bay restaurants dealing with coronavirus? One day at a time

The world is changing fast. Our food critic weighs in on where we are right now.
Diners at Brick & Mortar in St. Petersburg.

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As a restaurant critic, I find myself in the middle of an unprecedented crisis as I try to cover the industry I’ve either written about or worked in for the majority of my adult life.

Over the past week or so, I’ve talked to local chefs. I wanted to know if they, like me, were anxiously noting every update about the coronavirus pandemic: when a major restaurant group in Washington closed five of its restaurants, citing a steep decline in business due to the coronavirus; when New York City restaurants began to shutter, first dining giants like Le Bernardin and Daniel, and then all of them.

When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidelines recommending social distancing — avoiding crowded public areas and keeping a distance of at least 6 feet between people — the restaurant industry began to feel the brunt, and fast.

By Sunday evening, officials across the country officially closed restaurants and bars in dozens of cities and states — New York City, New Jersey, Illinois, Ohio, Washington, Massachusetts, Louisiana.

We have been slower to adapt. Despite some restaurants reporting slightly lower-than-average business this past weekend, Tampa Bay restaurants remained open. People were still dining out and drinking in large crowds. On Friday night, the 200 block of Central Avenue in downtown St. Petersburg was jam-packed. Same with Saturday, where people sprawled out on the grassy yard at Green Bench Brewing.

As of now, most of the restaurants in Tampa Bay remain open.

What seemed less likely this weekend — an official closure of all restaurants and bars — now feels like it could happen at any moment. Local restaurants are scrambling to adapt and pivot, while struggling to stay afloat.

For many restaurants, the business margins are notoriously thin. In an industry that relies on hourly workers, many of whom depend on tips to make a living, closing would mean putting dozens, sometimes hundreds, of people out of work with no safety net.

“People in the service industry aren’t going to have a job anymore come midweek, and the ripple effect is going to be massive,” said Dan Bavaro, who owns the Neapolitan pizza restaurants Bavaro’s, with locations in Tampa and St. Petersburg.

Bavaro said he is fully expecting a citywide shutdown on restaurants, and has prepared his staff to shift to a curbside delivery, meal prep and takeout operation for the time being.

While larger restaurant groups might have some cash reserve to fall back on in the event of a closure, most small, independently run restaurants simply don’t have that kind of financial net, Bavaro said.

“A lot of people who go out of business won’t be able to return," he said. "Those that can weather the storm will come back and thrive. Who will weather the storm? That’s the real question.”

“It’s day by day, but really, half-day to half-day at this point,” said Hope Montgomery, who together with her husband Jason Ruhe runs downtown St. Petersburg restaurant Brick & Mortar and the newly opened Sea Worthy Fish + Bar in Tierra Verde.

Montgomery said they saw their business fall drastically over the weekend, recording the slowest-ever Friday in five years.

In addition to things like enhanced safety and sanitation protocols, using disposable menus and moving tables further away from each other to help with social distancing, local restaurants are increasingly offering curbside takeout or delivery options, as well as discounted gift cards in place of dine-in meals for those who would rather stay home.

If dining rooms can’t remain open, many are hopeful they can move to a takeout-centric approach.

Montgomery said her team is on a group text with other chefs from around the area, and they exchange tips and coping mechanisms as the industry continues to battle a monster that is changing day by day.

“It’s a first-time experience for everyone here, and at the moment we’re all just trying to stay abreast of it," she said.

Maryann Ferenc, who together with partner Marty Blitz has run fine-dining restaurant Mise en Place for decades, and recently opened the Dewey in Pass-a-Grille, said her staff is actively working each day to adapt. That has included increased sanitizing of all the restaurant surfaces, moving tables for more space and limiting capacity, as well as creating new menus for those who would rather not dine in.

“It’s tremendously concerning and unprecedented in our lives, and at times hard to contemplate to what point we might actually get to,” Ferenc said.

Ferenc, like so many other restaurant owners I spoke with this week, cited the difficulty of closing a business that’s become a haven for people seeking community during times of distress.

“There’s this softball in the pit of my stomach and it’s on all levels,” she said. “It’s for my own establishment and its well-being. It’s for my staff and their well-being. These are real people that need their paycheck every week. And I think about our state as a whole, because it’s the No. 1 industry in our state and it’s absolutely devastating.”

Personally, it hurts. I don’t know what will happen. I don’t know if or how the local industry will recover.

And I don’t know if I should still be telling you to go out to eat. I’ve struggled with how to process this, but also with what to tell readers. It’s a question that keeps me up in the middle of the night.

Restaurants and bars need our support more than ever right now. That might come in the form of extra tips for the service workers bringing us our takeout or delivery. It might look like buying gift cards for all of your loved ones to enjoy once this is all over. It might look like a virtual dinner fundraiser, where you can support the employees who will inevitably be out of a job for a while.

I can’t tell you whether you should continue to dine out right now or not — you’ll have to make that decision for yourself. My birthday is in one week, and I had planned on a big dinner out with friends. Instead, I’ll be ordering takeout from my favorite place. That is, if they’re still open.

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