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Tampa Bay restaurants react to state’s order to close due to the coronavirus

The executive order from Florida’s governor leaves thousands of local restaurant workers instantly jobless.
Jason Lette, general manager at Stillwaters Tavern in St. Petersburg, uses a blower to clean the outdoor seating area of the restaurant on Beach Drive after closing to customers Friday. [SCOTT KEELER | TAMPA BAY TIMES]

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ST. PETERSBURG — Jillian and Dimitri Hollis’ destination wedding looked a lot different than the one they had pictured. Instead of close to 100 guests, there were four. And instead of a catered affair, the couple had a quiet lunch on St. Petersburg’s Beach Drive on Friday afternoon.

The bride ordered a burger without a bun. The groom had beef Wellington. And shortly after 3 p.m., Parkshore Grill served its last meal, at least for the foreseeable future.

Customers James Kordis, Sally Kordis, Dimitri Hollis and Jillian Hollis have lunch at Parkshore Grille. [SCOTT KEELER | TAMPA BAY TIMES]

On Friday, Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered all restaurants in Florida to close and move to takeout or delivery, mirroring rules already in place across the country to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. The directive, issued shortly after 2 p.m., brought the local restaurant industry to a screeching halt, prompting the immediate layoffs of thousands of hospitality employees throughout the Tampa Bay area.

By this point, the news wasn’t exactly unexpected. This week, restaurants and bars in the area quickly tried to adapt to an encroaching set of restrictions that limited both capacity and operating hours.

Related: Tampa Bay’s restaurants try to adapt to an unprecedented crisis

Beach Drive, usually a hub of tourists and locals dining out for lunch, was eerily quiet on Friday, save for a few lingering diners finishing up their meals in the midday heat.

“We’ve had better days," said Thomas Sanburn, as his staff at Stillwaters Tavern packed up chairs and cleaned off tables.

A busy lunch rush was just calming down when the restaurant’s staff was informed they were out of jobs.

Sanburn, who is the president of restaurant group 2B Hospitality, also runs nearby Italian restaurant BellaBrava. Between the two spots, he said he was forced to lay off roughly 140 people.

“We were really hoping to get just one more weekend in,” he said. “But we’ve been expecting this.”

A sign on the front door of Stillwaters Tavern in St. Petersburg on Friday. [SCOTT KEELER | TAMPA BAY TIMES]

As part of the order, licensed restaurants and food establishments must “suspend on-premises food consumption for customers," while owners may keep kitchens open for takeout or delivery. The same applies to alcohol, and the order lifts some restrictions on restaurants to allow for the sale of packaged drinks with to-go meals.

Friday’s order follows a directive from earlier in the week, which mandated that bars and nightclubs had to close for 30 days, specifically businesses that make more than half of their revenue from alcohol sales.

Like so many other restaurants that have since pivoted to takeout- and delivery-focused models, Stillwaters Tavern will continue to sell food and alcohol to-go.

“Closed is not in my vocabulary," Sanburn said. “And if you want to buy a bottle of whiskey, come see me.”

Over at nearby restaurant Tryst, general manager Michael Perry sat outside smoking a cigar. A group of guests hovered on barstools nearby, nursing beers. They were told their tab was about to be cut off.

“Talk to Greg,” Perry shouted over to a hostess who had just showed up for her shift. “Everything’s closed.”

“The past two weeks have been incredibly rough, but we should have done it earlier than this,” said Perry. “Hearing about it in the middle of the afternoon on a Friday is on par for what the response from the state has been like so far.”

On Friday, Gov. DeSantis ordered all restaurants to close dining rooms and move to takeout or delivery only. [SCOTT KEELER | TAMPA BAY TIMES]

Most restaurant owners had by Friday already prepared for the impending shutter, but that didn’t make laying off employees any easier.

Over in Ybor City, lunch service was wrapping up at the Columbia Restaurant, the oldest continuously operated restaurant in Florida.

Richard Gonzmart, the president of the Columbia Restaurant Group, said he was forced to lay off nearly 1,400 people.

“These are people that are family, employees that have been with us forever,” Gonzmart said. “I never thought I would see this day come in our country, in our history.”

Tampa Bay Times coronavirus coverage

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