Tony Napoli and his son enjoy Sombrero Beach, reopened to locals. SARA MATTHIS/Keys Weekly

Two sure signs that life is getting back to normal in the Florida Keys: the blue tape designating the one-way aisles has come off the floors in Publix, and there were reports of full shelves of toilet paper. Full. Shelves.

These and other small signs are encouraging, but it’s a step in the right direction.

“The first day we were open, May 4, was a fairly normal day. We were happily surprised,” said Ryan Elwell of Royal Furniture. “It dropped off the next day, but that’s to be expected. Our sales team was just happy to be back at work with people to talk to.”

Marathon Chamber of Commerce director Daniel Samess likens the process to a “soft opening,” especially for retailers. “The business owners are working out the kinks — how to keep customers six feet apart and sanitation measures,” Samess said. The governor’s order allowing restaurants to reopen — with indoor seating limited to 25% capacity — isn’t enough to induce some restaurateurs to open their doors. 

Sunset Grille and Waterfront, one of the Middle Keys’ largest restaurants, is going to wait to reopen when it can serve more diners. Brutus Seafood, a smaller establishment, has reopened with outdoor seating under its tiki hut. 

Sweet Savannah’s reopened this week, too. While the volume is down, it’s something to do, said owner Kate Koler. “I need to get my people back to work. They want to come back to work,” she said. 

And then there are the parks and beaches: open by decree of local governments and empty by local standards. On May 5, just a handful of families and small groups were enjoying the crystal clear waters of Sombrero Beach. Tony Napoli, a tattoo artist, spent time with his young son teaching him how to use a snorkel. 

“This is really nice,” Napoli said.

Down the road a ways, Key West is gradually getting back on its feet, although some restaurant owners are hesitant to open for indoor dining, concerned that the 25% capacity won’t enable them to operate successfully.

“We’re still doing good takeout and delivery business, but we’re going to wait a bit to reopen to diners,” said Ben Solove, owner of The Dirty Pig barbecue joint on Grinnell Street. “To be honest, I sort of want to see what happens with the petri dish around town.”

Goldman’s bagel deli in Overseas Market was making it happen the morning of May 6, having removed several tables in the center of the restaurant and offering their spacious booths to diners. 

Key West restaurateur Bill Lay has started a new Restaurant and Bar Committee to guide the reopening. The committee held its first Zoom meeting this week, “with perfect timing as we start to reopen,” Key West Chamber of Commerce president Greg Sullivan said.

Downtown, owners of popular boutiques such as Vignette on Southard Street and Besame Mucho on Petronia Street are thrilled to be able to open in time to welcome Mother’s Day shoppers and are eager to open their doors to new and returning customers.

“We look forward to the many newly painted and spruced-up businesses in Key West, as many employers have had their staff busy doing projects during this down time period that couldn’t be accomplished during our busy time,” Sullivan said. “This will be an interesting summer as we reopen for business and learn our new normal — face masks for all.” 

Upper Keys establishments are gradually beginning to open their doors to locals with the governor’s phase one plan taking effect May 4. In Islamorada, Square Grouper reopened its takeout and curbside pickup operation following a hiatus. Lunch is available from noon to 4 p.m. and dinner from 4 to 8 p.m.

Taking into consideration a lack of tourists as well as operating costs, Square Grouper general manager Joe Bell said the dining room and outdoor seating will stay closed for now.

“We don’t think we’re going to have the demand in order to reopen our dining rooms and outdoor seating just yet,” he said. “I just think it might be best to see how others channel everything and see how the general population kind of reacts to being able to go back to restaurants and dine inside.”

With masks on, servers at Enrico’s in Tavernier served New York-style pizza and other menu items to patrons who dined outside for lunch or dinner. Daily operations resumed under CDC guidelines with social distancing measures in place for customers and staff. Curbside pickup and delivery continue as well. 

“It’s nice to see people out again,” said server Alecia Hoernermann. 

Key Largo Chamber of Commerce president Elizabeth Moscynski said many business owners understand what they need to do to reopen. For smaller restaurants with indoor seating only, it gets a little difficult. 

“By the time you have two booths up in front and two over on the side, maybe two in the back, that’s it,” she said.

Small restaurants like The Catch remained closed for the time being. A reopening of Snook’s Bayside Restaurant & Grand Tiki Bar is set for Friday, May 8. Reservations are suggested before arriving. 

Park amenities are also opening up. In Islamorada, Founders Park Beach, dog park and tennis courts opened up to village residents only. Library Beach, Anne’s Beach and the Fills remain closed.

Although many of these businesses which are essential to our Keys economy were, or are still, closed, that doesn’t mean they have been idle. 

Royal Furniture, for example, partnered with Marathon Middle High School staff and Middle Keys Realtors to arrange food deliveries for needy families. Since it started, the group has delivered about 80 meals a day. Ditto for Brutus Seafood: it’s the hottest ticket in town on Saturdays when it partners with other businesses to hand out vegetables and hot meals. 

“We’re all anxious to be back to normal, or the new normal, whatever it is,” Elwell said. 

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