Mary Ellen's is one of several Key West restaurants that cannot allow bar seating, according to a city directive. MANDY MILES/Keys Weekly

Key West restaurant owners asked city officials on Aug. 26 to allow bar seating at their establishments. The City Commission is expected to give them an answer on Tuesday, Sept. 1.

Bill Lay, owner of La Trattoria Italian restaurant on Duval Street and Virgilio’s lounge, and co-owner with Darren Horan of La Trattoria Oceanside and Benihana on South Roosevelt, addressed the commission on Aug. 26 on behalf of several restaurant owners in town.

“We’re operating at 50% capacity. It’s manageable, but extremely difficult without bar seating,” Lay told the commissioners, adding that one popular bar and grill on Duval Street derives 70% of its overall income from food and alcohol sales at its bar seats. 

 “We’re asking you to allow us to open our bars for seating, drinking and dining,” Lay said. “This would not only give the restaurants a fighting chance, but would also put many people back to work. I’m proposing that you allow bar seating without requiring food orders, but that patrons are required to be seated while eating or drinking. In other words, you can’t be two-deep at the bar with people standing behind someone who’s seated at the bar.

“And If someone doesn’t follow the rules, enforce them. But please don’t punish the majority for the sins of a few. The majority of us want to be good soldiers,” Lay said, adding that although temperature checks of customers are no longer required, many restaurants continue to do them.

He also ticked off the measures being taken to separate tables, keep dining groups separate and having people wait outside for a table, rather than congregating inside lobbies.

The city commissioners were largely sympathetic to Lay’s plight, and asked City Attorney Shawn Smith for some guidance. Smith reminded the lawmakers that the closure of standalone bars that don’t serve food is by order of the state and cannot be changed. But the closure of bar seating inside restaurants was done by order of the city in an emergency directive. 

Outside Key West, in the rest of Monroe County, bar seating is allowed inside restaurants, Smith said. The commissioners ultimately directed city staff to meet with restaurant owners to work out some of the details and enforcement concerns. 

The commission ultimately asked attorney Smith to draft a potential emergency ordinance for the Sept. 1 commission meeting that would allow bar seating. Additional discussions are expected about allowing restaurants to remain open and sell alcohol until 1 a.m. rather than the current midnight curfew.

Mayor Teri Johnston suggested that each restaurant be required to submit an operating plan for its bar seating, outlining its health and distancing protocols.

“Our numbers are coming down, and the only way to try something is to loosen things up a little, and if it doesn’t work, we’ll have to shut things down again. And if individual businesses aren’t complying, then they’ll lose the right. But I agree with Mr. Lay, I think many places are doing things correctly.”

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