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Florida takes a hesitant step toward reopening amid outbreak

Business owners and customers felt a range of emotions as things opened up, from elation to trepidation. In South Florida, there are signs that folks are antsy and want to get out of their homes.

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A three-tiered plan to lift the stay-at-home orders in Florida began with the first wave focused on opening restaurants and shops at 25% capacity in hopes of kickstarting the ailing economy after weeks of coronavirus -related shutdowns.

This so-called “phase one” allows restaurants, stores, museums, and libraries to open at limited capacity and allows elective surgeries to resume. Sports teams may play but without spectators. Rules for restaurants and stores don’t apply to Miami-Dade, Broward, or Palm Beach counties, where the outbreak was worse and officials wanted to ensure the virus was under control.

As of Sunday, Florida had just over 36,000 coronavirus cases, with around 1,379 deaths. Cases peaked in early April, drive-thru testing sites were set up around the state, and capacity for those tests outstripped demand in recent weeks — even when criteria has opened up to any adult who thinks they may have been exposed.

Still, business owners and customers felt a range of emotions as things opened up, from elation to trepidation.

Florida takes a hesitant step toward reopening amid outbreak
Ron Rogers, left, and Brenda Thompson decide on their order from waitress Jill Lawrence, right, at Shakers American Cafe Monday, May 4, 2020, in Orlando, Fla. Many Florida restaurants were allowed to open today with outdoor tables six feet apart and indoor seating at 25% capacity.(AP Photo/John Raoux)

When longtime customer Ron Rogers walked through the doors of Shakers American Café in Orlando on Monday morning, waitress Jill Lawrence stood, brought her rubber-gloved fingers to her lips and blew him a kiss. She then threw her arms around herself in a self-hug.

“Hugs and kisses from far away,” Lawrence said. “You’re looking good, man!”

After weeks of not visiting Shakers, Rogers was ready for his favorite menu item: smoked salmon.

Hand sanitizers were installed at the entrance and by the bathroom of the diner, which gets its name from the hundreds of colorful salt and pepper shakers that line shelves on its walls. Employees were wearing face masks and rubber gloves and had their temperature taken with a laser thermometer before their shift. Papers printed with “Table Closed” were taped to green-topped tables that weren’t being used because of social distancing guidelines.

In Tampa’s Ybor City neighborhood, the 115-year-old Columbia Restaurant and its other locations and brands were not reopening right away, said company President Richard Gonzmart.

He said it seemed too soon and that the company has the financial wherewithal to wait a bit longer even with 1,100 employees mostly on furlough. “Opening at 25% capacity, our restaurants can’t be successful. We need to be at about 80%.”

The original Columbia is known as a location for celebrations and special occasions, he added. With just a few people allowed inside, Gonzmart said, “It’s a dismal ambience, like a funeral. We don’t want to open early only to be told there is an increase of cases and have to close.”

On Florida’s west coast, Ashley Lopez, manager of the Nekton Surf Shop in Indian Rocks Beach, Florida, said the beachside store is reopening but only allowing 10 people inside at a time.

Lopez said the past couple of months have been difficult because March and April tend to be the height of tourist season along the Gulf of Mexico.

She hopes tourists return to the Gulf beaches this summer so the shop can make up for lost income. “Hopefully tourism isn’t completely gone this summer and it took a toll on our business,” Lopez said.

Florida takes a hesitant step toward reopening amid outbreak
Waitress Jill Lawrence. right, waits on customers at Shakers American Cafe Monday, May 4, 2020, in Orlando, Fla. Many Florida restaurants were allowed to open Monday with outdoor tables six feet apart and indoor seating at 25% capacity.(AP Photo/John Raoux)

On nearby Clearwater Beach, the sand officially reopened to the public before sunrise Monday morning.

Clearwater Police removed the “closed” signs from bicycle rack type barricades at 7 a.m. to the cheers of the 50 or so people waiting to step on the freshly groomed sand. Police had a large presence patrolling on the beach urging people to social distance.

In St. Petersburg, Tony Loeffler, the owner of Atlas Body and Home, a men’s apparel and lifestyle shop in downtown, said he is reopening Tuesday.

“We’ve missed all of our customers for the last five weeks,” he said, adding that his store hasn’t received any financial support from state or federal money intended for small business. “We’re doing it with all the precautions that we can. I don’t think that Florida is ready but I don’t know. We feel like we have to do this, even though we feel a little conflicted about it.”

Even in South Florida, there are signs that folks are antsy and want to get out of their homes. Everglades National Park in Florida opened to the public Monday. A line of boaters waited to get in at 7 a.m., and then one boat at a time went into the water.

The parks in Miami Beach and around South Florida reopened last week following a complete shutdown. In Miami Beach, a rash of warnings and instances of non-compliance occurred in one park over the weekend, according to police spokesman Ernesto Rodriguez.

Florida takes a hesitant step toward reopening amid outbreak

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