Bar, restaurant owners respond to new rules

Unforeseen circumstances

A March 18 meeting of Key West bar and restaurant owners started with complaints and criticism, but quickly gave way to cooperation and a commitment to do as much as they can to help their employees weather this unprecedented storm.

The meeting was called in response to mandatory business closures issued the day before.  

Governor Ron DeSantis on March 17 required all bars and nightclubs in the state to close until further notice, and all restaurants to reduce their seating capacity by half to facilitate healthy social distancing in response to the global coronavirus pandemic.

Monroe County complied with the governor’s rules, but Key West city officials went further and prohibited on-site dining in all Key West restaurants — take-out and delivery orders only.

The business community questioned the inconsistency within the island chain, pointing out that residents and visitors could suddenly go out to dinner on Stock Island, Summerland Key and elsewhere, but not in Key West.

In a video message posted late Wednesday, Key West City Manager Greg Veliz said the decision to close all restaurants for on-site dining stemmed from an enforcement challenge and the difficulties the city would face in calculating a 50% reduction in capacity. 

“We have to look beyond the current train wreck; we have to look forward,” said Jim Gilleran, owner of The 801 Bar and other entities. “Key West is uniquely positioned to come together as a business community, because it’s what we’ve always done. This is part of who we are.”

Gilleran and Two Friends Patio Restaurant owner Danny Hughes have helped launch a new Facebook presence called One Clean Island with the aim of sharing best practices, financial assistance resources and dispelling any misinformation circulating online or via the more organic and informal, yet shockingly effective, Coconut Telegraph.

They met with Mark Rossi and more than a dozen other business owners and managers Wednesday afternoon.

Many of them expressed frustration that “the city can shut down an entire industry with no notice.”

But the focus quickly shifted back to the group’s top priority, “Taking care of our own,” Gilleran said. “We have to stay on the same page and remain stable and help each other and our workers.”

The One Clean Island Facebook page will have daily video blogs posted at 10 a.m. 

“We’ll share the latest information, available resources, how to help our community and other pertinent information relating to this new reality,” Gilleran said.

Bar and restaurant owners and managers discuss their commitment to supporting their employees through these troubled times. MANDY MILES/Keys Weekly

“This group right here represents a few thousand employees and they need us,” Rossi said to nodding heads. “I can’t stress that enough. If we need to feed them, we’ll feed them. If we need to put them to work doing other things, we can do that. But I can’t stress enough how important these folks are, and how many of them live paycheck to paycheck and hand to mouth.”

Some servers could become delivery drivers in the coming days. Busboys may be painting walls or cleaning equipment. But they’ll be working as much as possible, everyone agreed.

“I’ve never seen anything like this. At least with a hurricane you can see it coming,” Hughes said. “I just wish the city would match its restrictions with the state and county.”

Greg Sullivan, president of the Key West Chamber of Commerce, suggested that the folks at the meeting “politely contact” elected city officials they know, and mention the difficulties.

“To be honest, the chamber was a bit surprised we didn’t receive any advance notice,” Sullivan said.

In addition to requiring bars and restaurants to close, Veliz and Mayor Teri Johnston took steps to reduce crowds in the city. They canceled the nightly Sunset Celebration at Mallory Square, closed Smathers Beach and cordoned off the iconic Southernmost Point buoy, where a line of would-be photographers typically stretches down the block. The landmark buoy was draped in a blue tarp by Wednesday morning. 

Historic Tours of America ceased tour operations. Some museums had closed, while others remained open. 

The county-owned Higgs Beach, less than a mile from the city’s Smathers Beach, remained open on Wednesday, while police patrolled Smathers and politely informed visitors it was closed.

Bill Lay, owner of La Trattoria Restaurant, Virgilio’s Lounge and La Trattoria Oceanside, told the assembled business owners on Wednesday that he was encouraged by Veliz’s willingness to reevaluate the situation on a “day-by-day basis.”

“That seemed like a positive message to me,” Lay said.

For updated information and a daily video blog, visit One Clean Island on Facebook.

The city-owned Smathers Beach in Key West has been closed since March 17. MANDY MILES/Keys Weekly


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Mandy Miles drops stuff, breaks things and falls down more than any adult should. She's married to a saintly — and handy — fisherman, and has been stringing words together in Key West since 1998.