After a prolonged closure, the Wharf, an expansive outdoor bar on Fort Lauderdale's Las Olas Boulevard, is set to reopen this afternoon with a new set of COVID-19 rules and safeguards in place.
After shutting down in compliance with state mandates last March, the Wharf Fort Lauderdale and its sibling, the Wharf Miami, both reopened in November. On November 21, a day after reopening, Broward County code-enforcement officers shut down the Fort Lauderdale location, owing to what the the Sun-Sentinel described as a potential "superspreader event." The paper posted a video showing hundreds of maskless patrons drinking and partying.
Though the Fort Lauderdale bar was ordered to shut down for a 24-hour period, its owners decided to remain closed through the holiday season in order to rework their operating strategy. (The Wharf Miami has been open without interruption since November.)
"We took the position of holding ourselves to a higher standard," Emi Guerra, co-founder of Breakwater Hospitality Group, which owns and operates both Wharf locations, tells New Times. "We decided to skip the busiest time of the year and hold back until we could come up with a better plan."
He notes that the Wharf Fort Lauderdale employs over 150 people who needed to get back to work and that he hopes that the additional measures keep everyone safe.
The problem, he says, is that many customers think that if they have a drink in their hand, they don't need to keep their mask on.
"That's human behavior," he says, adding that about a dozen employees have been designated for mask patrol, which will have them circulating throughout the space reminding patrons to keep their masks on whenever they aren't actually seated.
That, Guerra says, is a significant change in the way the bar does business.
"We're not a restaurant. That's not our business model," he emphasizes. "But in an effort to follow guidelines, we've ordered 200 additional seats so people can sit outside."
The Wharf now also allows customers to reserve a table online in advance — an amenity Guerra encourages visitors to take advantage of.
The five bars that serve the 50,000-plus-square-foot space have also undergone a transformation. Instead of spaces conducive to lingering and gabbing, they'll now essentially be pick-up windows.
Says Guerra: "We set up ropes at the bar, so now you can grab your drink and go."
Protective Plexiglass guards have also been installed to separate customers from bartenders. Capacity has been limited to about 50 percent in order to allow for adequate social distancing. Guerra says his team has been working with local officials to make sure everything is in compliance.
"At the end of the day, opening is going to provide an amenity to the community," he says. "Our venue is 100 percent outdoors. It's an open-air establishment and we are an ideal place for a time like this."
The Wharf Fort Lauderdale. 20 W. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale; 954-372-76064; wharfftl.com. 4 p.m. until late Thursday and Friday; noon until late Saturday and Sunday.