“Our number-one goal is to please take care of your employees.”
That was the main message from Key West bar owner Mark Rossi during a Friday afternoon meeting of the One Clean Island group that formed in the wake of the coronavirus crisis. Approximately 50 business owners met briefly in an oversized ballroom at Margaritaville Key West Resort to ensure proper social distancing between individuals.
Rossi told the group that he had been in touch with utility officials from Keys Energy Services and the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority “about not shutting off people’s utilities in these financial difficulties. Although the bill amounts won’t be simply forgiven, there will be an abatement period that gives people more time to pay without being shut-off,” he said.
Key West City Manager Greg Veliz also attended the meeting, and was encouraged by the business community’s willingness to come together.
“We work for you,” Veliz said, acknowledging the difficulties the owners and their employees are facing. “Perhaps we can do a better job of communicating and we’re happy to use this group as a conduit for that communication.”
Veliz expressed his appreciation for the owners’ commitment to keeping as many workers as possible employed despite the shutdown of all Florida bars and the statewide requirement that all restaurants limit their services to delivery and takeout orders.
In Gov. Ron DeSantis’s latest Executive Order, issued Friday, March 20, he lifted the prohibition that formerly prevented restaurants from selling alcohol to-go.
Those establishments may now sell packaged alcohol via takeout and delivery with proper ID checks, the governor’s order states.
Mary Ellen’s bar and restaurant on Appelrouth Lane, for example, is now offering takeout and delivery of alcohol when accompanied by a food order.
Bill Lay, who owns Benihana, La Trattoria on Duval Street and La Trattoria Oceanside on South Roosevelt Boulevard, said he’s been offering takeout and delivery to keep his kitchens running and his employees working.
“We’re working hard and will continue to do everything we possibly can to help our staff and our community,” Lay said.
Lay, along with Stock Island restaurateur Bobby Mongelli, and several other owners have said they will likely start providing meals for staff and the community as the severity of the situation takes hold.
At Truman and Duval, Sinz burrito restaurant had reconfigured its space to provide a walk-up counter without allowing people inside. The business also offers easy online ordering and delivery.
In an effort to help business owners keep people working, the city’s code compliance director Jim Young told the group on Friday that businesses temporarily will be permitted to perform maintenance and repair projects to their Old Town properties without needing a permit from the Historic Architectural Review Commission (HARC).
“The code office is being very lenient to make it easier to keep people working,” Young said. “This will allow workers to be painting, repairing and making other improvements.”
Young also reminded folks to keep the work within reason. “Rossi, don’t paint your building purple during these times. That will still get you in some trouble.”
Key West attorneys Darren Horan and Bart Smith, both of whom also own restaurants in town, shared some information and advice about Business Interruption Insurance and the newly passed Coronavirus Response Act.
Smith said the new law will take effect April 2 and urged local business owners to familiarize themselves with some of the law’s provisions and requirements with regard to employment, sick leave and vacation pay.
Horan pointed out that Business Interruption Insurance policies traditionally required that a property be physically damaged in order for the insurance to kick in.
But businesses in other cities have had success with those policies by asserting that COVID-19 contaminantes a building or property and thus physically damages it. Horan encouraged city officials to evaluate the city’s declaration of a state of emergency and perhaps amend the language to mention potential physical contamination to help business owners access insurance payments.
Finally, bar owner Jim Gilleran acknowledged the struggle, anger and fear of the unknown that everyone now faces.
“I think we’ve been in shock, and we’ve been angry since this whole thing started,” Gilleran said, encouraging people to be angry with the virus and the situation, but not each other. “I think the shock is wearing off and now it’s time to act.”
One Clean Island will be posting daily video updates on its Facebook page at 10 a.m., and will be sharing information about what businesses are and can be doing to help their workers and the community in general.