Outside Hoots, a brand new fast-casual restaurant in downtown St. Petersburg, a slow trickle of people peeked their heads inside. An employee stood by the front door, beckoning for passersby to enter.
“Come in, come in,” the man said to a group of delivery men curiously eyeing the menu.
"Just make sure to keep your distance, please.” With that, the employee pointed to the bright orange floor markers emblazoned with the number six on them — meant to ensure social distancing practices inside the small space.
Monday marked the Florida debut for the wings joint, a sister concept to Hooters from the Clearwater-based Hooters Management Corp. It also served as the opening day for restaurants all across the Tampa Bay area, which for the first time in six weeks were given the green light to welcome customers to dining rooms and patios.
It’s the first relaxing in a series of restrictions enacted by Gov. Ron DeSantis in March, when the state’s restaurants and bars were shuttered as part of the ongoing effort to curb the spread of COVID-19.
Restaurants were allowed to seat 25 percent of their usual capacity indoors and could have outdoor seating with six feet between tables. Parties larger than 10 are not allowed and bar seating is not permitted.
And while many restaurant owners decided to remain closed for the time being, those that opened their doors were greeted with a gradual flow of customers throughout the day. If there was any trepidation that people wouldn’t be going out, that fear seemed to dissipate as the day wore on and restaurants saw an increasing number of diners out enjoying the sunny spring weather.
Beach restaurants, in particular, were busy, with places like Treasure Island’s Ricky T’s and nearby Boulevard Burgers, in St. Pete Beach, both packed with sun-kissed diners.
Most restaurants on St. Petersburg’s tony Beach Drive had not opened by Monday, but the few that did saw a steady lunch service, with most people opting to sit outside. A handful of outdoor tables at Parkshore Grill and the Canopy at Birchwood filled up with couples and groups of four, while the rest of the usually bustling strip stayed quiet.
In Tampa, Daily Eats managing partner Travis Kaiser said the popular S Howard Avenue restaurant had reached capacity by Monday’s breakfast service, with every available table occupied.
Though the restaurant has been running a successful takeout operation during the shutdown, Kaiser said he wasn’t sure what to expect of Monday’s reopening.
”The first couple of weeks, we didn’t know what was going to happen,” Kaiser said. “And then the next couple of weeks started to build up and people were less scared. A lot of people out there want to get out as long as they feel safe.”
The restaurant, which normally can seat 80 people inside, is now seating just 20 people and 23 at the outside tables. Every other booth inside is left unoccupied. Diners ate with regular silverware but received single use, paper menus. Kaiser said they could request to use disposable silverware and to-go containers if they wished.
Leo Krawetz, a Daily Eats regular, said Monday’s lunch experience was “better than sitting in a car.”
“I want to see restaurants survive, especially the good restaurants,” said Krawetz. “I figured the more we can get out right away and fill them to the capacity that they’re allowed, as long as we’re distanced, we’ll be good. The hardest part is trying to eat through a mask.”
With little-to-no guidelines beyond the capacity requirements, restaurants that opened Monday had varying interpretations of what opening safely entailed. Masks are not required to be worn by employees, even though a task force appointed by the governor recommended wearing them, leaving the decision largely up to the restaurant owners’ discretion.
The practice seemed to widely vary by location. At Beach Drive’s Park Shore Grill and the Canopy, the servers all wore masks. Service staff at the Galley in St. Pete and Ka’Tiki, near Sunset Beach, did not. At Cider Press Cafe, on Central Avenue in downtown St. Pete, all of the staff wore masks. A few doors down, at the Lure, they did not, though Lure owner Michael Stewart said that all employees would be required to do so by Monday’s dinner service.
“That will 100 percent change,” he said.
Stewart, who also owns 717 South and Ava, in Tampa, said those restaurants had undergone significant physical restructuring inside, including glass partitions between booths. And 717 South is taking advantage of a newly-launched economic recovery plan that temporarily allows restaurants to expand their outdoor seating into areas that otherwise would be considered public rights-of-way, like sidewalks or alleys, as well as privately owned parking facilities.
Other safety measures taken at the restaurants include single-use menus and single-use paper tablecloth toppings, sanitizing stations throughout and staff that are required to do temperature checks and health screenings before clocking in.
“We are going from zero to 60,” Stewart said. “It’s really like opening a restaurant — I feel like we’re back there.”
Despite the number of restaurants that opened Monday, the industry seemed to be experiencing more of a slow thaw, with many restaurant owners taking more of a staggered approach.
Management at Bodega, Oxford Exchange, the Mill and Caddy’s in Treasure Island all said they would open within the coming one to two weeks.
Other restaurants, like Bern’s Steak House and Mise en Place in Tampa and Pia’s and Golden Dinosaurs Vegan Deli in Gulfport, are all staying closed for now, while still offering takeout.
“So far, we’ve sided with caution," a staff member of Golden Dinosaurs wrote on their social media page. “And we will continue to do so until the number of (COVID-19) cases and death(s) stop increasing.”
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