By Mandy Miles, Jim McCarthy and Sara Matthis
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis took another step toward dispersing crowds on one of the busier holidays — St. Patrick’s Day — by ordering all bars and nightclubs in Florida to close for 30 days, effective 5 p.m. on Tuesday, March 17.
The state defines a bar or nightclub as any establishment that derives 50% or more of its gross revenues from alcohol sales. If more than half of those revenues come from the sale of food or other items, the business is not classified as a bar or nightclub, and can remain open if it reduces its capacity to allow more space between patrons.
“Without an audit, I couldn’t begin to say how many of those type establishments there are in Marathon,” said City Manager Chuck Lindsey. The governor has said that the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation will be charged with enforcing this order.
DeSantis said the state is requiring a 50 percent capacity reduction in restaurants, and staggered and spaced-out seating to ensure seated parties are separated by at least 6 feet. DeSantis is also encouraging people to use takeout and delivery services.
In Key West, takeout and delivery are the only available options. As of 5 p.m. on Tuesday, March 17, no on-site dining or consumption is allowed in establishment in the city limits.
“We are taking unprecedented measures today to ensure a healthy and safe community in the future,” said Key West Mayor Teri Johnston.
Monroe County is adhering to the state’s latest restrictions. Bars must close for 30 days, but restaurants can operate at 50% capacity.
“You’ve seen a lot of things about people congregating at some of these things. We view that as problematic for spreading the virus,” DeSantis said. “Stealth carriers, people who don’t have symptoms but that are nevertheless passing along, or have such mild symptoms, is something that really nobody has a handle on. If they’re not meeting in those big groups, the chance of passing it along is much less.”
Locally, Key West officials took it a step further by requiring all restaurants to offer only takeout and delivery, effective Tuesday, March 17 at 5 p.m.
The decisions for responses to the fluid situation are being made at all levels in the interest of public safety. This follows the decision by President Donald Trump to discourage gatherings of more than 10 people.
DeSantis said the state will require restaurants to screen all employees and prohibit entry for those who may have symptoms of the coronavirus.
“This is the floor of the state of Florida for the foreseeable future,” he said. “We support the efforts that the locals are doing. This is a virus affecting the whole state, but it affects different communities differently. The response may not always be the same on every little thing. This makes the most sense. It gives the flexibility to go further if they want to, but also recognizes that we have some areas where we haven’t seen this yet.”
While patrons are still invited into the dining room at Square Grouper in Islamorada, General Manager Joe Bell said they’re pushing more take-out ordering to urge people to follow social distancing. Inside the restaurant, Bell said, a new sanitation system is in place to ensure all surfaces are clean as possible.
“We’re going the extra mile to wipe menus and salt and pepper shakers. We’re going above and beyond and we’re doing our best to make sure it doesn’t spread,” he said. “Guests are still welcome to come in and have a good time, and we will follow all government mandates as far as closures are concerned, as public safety is our No. 1 concern.”
Bell said the restaurant was busy this past weekend, with many people from the mainland coming down.
John Koch of Sunset Grille and Raw Bar in Marathon said his open air tiki dining room is an advantage.
“That’s what they’re saying, right? Fresh air and vitamin D? We got that,” he said. “I think people know that. We’re really busy right now.”
Koch said he took the extra step of ordering to-go containers before the governor’s order, just in case.
“It’s hard because there’s a lot of information to take in, and this is a new virus,” said Elise Mucha, owner of Brutus Restaurant and Seafood Market in Marathon. “I feel like every day changes. First, crowds are limited to 50 people, then 10 people.”
She said she’s taken steps — extra sanitizing of tabletops and door handles. She’s limited inside seating and she will still have her outside seating. She already has delivery service in place and said it’s a good way to keep servers employed if the dining room foot traffic slows down.
In Marathon, Ken Welever of Island Time Diner has already adopted this policy. All food will be served through the window, and the dining room is closed. He said he’s doing it to protect his own health, the health of his family and patrons.
Sweet Savannah’s will begin offering delivery of cupcakes and ice cream.
Koch said he has business interruption insurance and is going to be looking at the policy more closely. In the United Kingdom, where officials are urging citizens to stay away from restaurants and bars but not mandating them to close, business owners are caught in a catch-22. Owners can’t collect insurance until they are ordered to close their doors, but slower traffic keeps them from turning a profit.
Both Mucha and Koch say they will follow whatever directive comes from the state.
“I’ll do what the authorities tell me to do,” said Koch.
“This is not fun,” said Mucha. “This is adulting at its finest.”