Palm Beach restaurants like Rocco's Tacos & Tequila Bar, which had been relying on takeout and delivery to keep locations open, opened their dining rooms and patios last week as part of Florida's first phase of reopening the state. Operating at 50 percent of original indoor seating capacity, maintaining six-foot physical distancing, and strict sanitation guidelines are some of the strict terms in which restaurateurs must follow. During this phase one of the reopening plan, bar seating is still off-limits.
But constraints haven't discouraged owner Rocco Mangel from celebrating last week's reopening of his outposts in Boca Raton, Delray Beach, Palm Beach Gardens, and West Palm Beach.
"The local community has been amazing and welcomed us back with open arms," said Mangel. "We were able to fill up our locations on Monday while fully complying with guidelines."
On Clematis Street in West Palm Beach, a line of patrons well-distanced by stickers on the ground outside the eatery were willing to wait as long as 45-minutes for a table on opening night. Inside, they were greeted by a face-masked staff with disposable paper menus. A cleaning crew worked throughout the space disinfecting surfaces. Throughout the allotted one-hour-and-a-half stay, guests could hear a bell ring every thirty minutes reminding employees to wash their hands.
Mangel said that a third of his original staff is working and their temperatures are screened before each shift. The others have been furloughed and their health insurance was paid for in April and May. "There are also some employees who don't want to get back to work right now and we respect that," he noted.
Palm Beach has seen more than 4,000 reported cases of COVID-19 and over 250 deaths from the disease, a slower rate of infection than Broward and Miami-Dade when factoring in population. Mangel, who also owns eateries in Orlando, Tampa, and Naples (which have been operating with since the beginning of the month with varying degrees of restrictions) said that the Health Department has been conducting inspections and that local police pays regular visits to check for social distancing.
"The government is not punishing us, it is just trying to avoid an outbreak like the one in New York with a step-by-step approach. Look what happened in Naples, they re-opened the beach and closed almost immediately because rules weren't followed. It was like they were on probation and got put back in jail."
Coyo Taco is another restaurant in Palm Beach that is adjusting its model to the new norm. The two-year-old Mexican eatery had been building up a steady clientele until the closing order was issued, but shut down entirely due to the outbreak.
On Thursday, owners Scott Linquist, Alan Drummond, and Sven Vogtland resumed operations with a takeout-and-delivery model. With close to a week of high sales volume under their belt, they are now targeting tomorrow, May 19, as the first day of dine-in service.
"We wanted to take our time to ensure that everything is done according to guidelines," said Vogtland.
The restaurant's 80-guest dining room will be allowed to serve only 20 people at a time and in addition to social distancing protocol and sanitizer positions, their new way of business also involves serving food in to-go containers, disposable cutlery, and a wait staff wearing face masks and shields.
Vogtland said that plans to resume dine-in service at Coyo's Miami outposts are unfolding concurrently with Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Giménez's "New Normal" reopening plan. As per the 182-page document, most non-essential businesses in Miami-Dade County and Broward county were allowed to resume operations as of May 18, while the City of Miami, Miami Beach, Hialeah, Doral, and Key Biscayne are set to reopen restaurants with new safety measures on May 27.
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Under the guidelines, fifty percent of occupancy is permitted as long as physical distancing between parties is at least six feet apart. Between indoor and outdoor seating, no restaurant may exceed its legally permitted occupancy.
"Whatever guest allowance we are permitted to open up with will work for us," said Vogtland. "We're prepared and ready to serve guests in a safe manner and the majority of our seating will be outside. Then it's really up to people to respect others around them."
His sentiment is echoed by Mangel, who's preparing to resume operations in Fort Lauderdale today within the county's regulations.
"The first thing people need to understand is that we have a health crisis, everybody is eager to live a normal life after house arrest, but we need to comply," he said. "I've been in the restaurant business for 34 years and this is the worst it has even been. We're exhausted the government is exhausted. If this happens again we won't survive. Until we find a vaccine, this won't go away, and, who knows, the "new normal" might actually be a good thing in the long-run."