ORLANDO, FLA. — Restaurants across parts of Florida opened their doors to dine-in customers for the first time in over a month on Mother’s Day weekend, giving a preview of the new normal Americans could face as the country works to recover from the coronavirus pandemic.
In Winter Park, a small city located outside of Orlando, the local government and business leaders experimented with closing down parts of the city’s roads in an effort to give restaurants and shops space to socially distance their customers outside in the late spring weather.
Of the city’s 400 eligible restaurant retail businesses, 22 applied and were approved to have the permit for outdoor seating.
The city estimated that roughly 20,000 customers and pedestrians filtered through the closed streets from Friday to Sunday.
“From the city’s perspective, it was very successful as far as allowing and supporting our restaurants and retail businesses of the city to be able to offer dining and a little retail therapy to moms and families that have been in quarantine for almost two months,” said Clarissa Howard, communications director of the city of Winter Park.
While southeast Florida remains on lockdown, customers were able to filter into restaurants in Winter Park and other cities in the state on Mother’s Day, which is traditionally a big day for restaurants.
Gov. Ron DeSantisRon DeSantisFlorida school district to relax mask mandate for high school students Miami Herald: DeSantis descending into 'anti-vaxx Crazyville' Trump-endorsed candidate leading GOP field to replace Crist in Florida: poll MORE (R) announced late last month that restaurants would be allowed to reopen at a 25 percent capacity, with tables spread six feet apart in dining rooms and patios. Parties are limited to a maximum of ten people.
The change comes as a number of other states have begun phased reopenings — with different degrees of success.
A number of states have yet to allow restaurants to open for dining.
In Colorado, which has started to reopen but has only allowed restaurants to offer delivery or drive up services, video showed crowds gathering on Mother’s Day at a restaurant in Castle Rock, apparently disregarding the state’s policy.
Larry Lynch, the senior vice president of certifications and operations at the National Restaurant Association, said the hard-hit industry is doing its best to adapt.
“I think the biggest change has been the social distancing component and then within the framework of the restaurants trying to figure out how to be as creative as they possibly can to keep people apart,” Lynch said.
In Winter Park, some restaurants that were able to open saw a resurgence in customers who hadn’t had a chance to dine out in months.
Francois Lorin, owner of Umi Japanese Fusion on the city’s Park Avenue, said the initiative brought a return of his restaurant’s regulars.
“It worked out very well,” Lorin told The Hill. “The waiters are wearing masks. We clean and clean and clean. The tables are over six feet, if possible and so on.”
At Eddie V’s Prime Seafood in the Orlando suburb of Dr. Phillips, numerous precautions were being taken by staff on Sunday.
A party joined by a reporter from The Hill were greeted by a sign on the door warning that anyone with coronavirus symptoms should not enter the restaurant. Hand sanitizer was also available to diners before arriving at the host stand. All staff were noticeably wearing protective face masks.
Rows of tables in the restaurant’s lounge area had alternating white and black table cloths, with the white cloths meaning wait staff may seat customers at those tables. The black covered tables served as a social distance barrier between other tables.
Eddie V’s Orlando-based parent company, Darden Restaurants, Inc., has mandated that its restaurants’ staff undergo daily temperature checks, wear masks, practice frequent hand sanitization, disinfect every table after each visit, and socially distance dining areas, according to the company’s website.
Additionally, the company has recommended that customers practice social distancing on restaurant premises, use mobile pay to avoid touching additional surfaces and wear a mask when not at their table.
This reporter wore a facemask to and from our assigned dining table in Eddie V’s.
“I think it’s also a good time to be a smart consumer,” Lynch said. “I would argue if I see it [wearing a facemask] now, I would say ‘wow, here’s a restaurant tourer who gets it and recognizes that he or she is looking out for my best interests.”
However, the precautions taken by restaurants in the state often appear to depend on the business and location.
In New Smyrna Beach, Fla., a small city roughly 20 miles south of Daytona Beach, Fla., restaurants are following social distancing and health guidance set by the state. As of Friday, there were 24 confirmed coronavirus cases in New Smyrna Beach. Orlando by comparison has seen over a thousand confirmed cases.
However, unlike many restaurants in the greater Orlando area, it’s not necessarily common to see employees with masks on in the small beach town.
“If some of our employees feel they want to wear a face mask, then we by all means encourage them,” said Adam Barringer, owner of SoNapa Grille in New Smyrna Beach. “If our customers want to wear them, that’s great too.”
Barringer said that his restaurant is taking other precautions, including temperature checks of employees, frequent hand washing and the wearing of gloves.
The risk with reopenings is that it will lead to a new rise in cases, and in places in Florida in other states with high numbers, it may be a while before they can reopen.
When they do, it may be at a reduced capacity, which may make it tough for some businesses to survive.
A number of Palm Beach County restaurants reopened on Monday after DeSantis announced late last week they were clear to open their doors at a 25 percent capacity with social distancing.
“Twenty-five percent capacity is better than 100 percent of nothing,” said Diego Oppo, the manager of Avocado Grill in Palm Beach Gardens.
Oppo said the restaurant staff, which is required to wear masks and gloves at all times, was sanitizing the location ahead of its opening for dinner on Monday night.
“We’re going to go as far as we can to ensure that everyone is safe and sound, including our employees,” he said.