Notwithstanding warnings of "needless suffering and death" from the nation’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, if the reopening process proves to have been implemented prematurely, Miami restaurant owners are beginning to plan for a gradual return to dining in.
Just two hours away, at the other end of Alligator Alley, the Gulf Coast city of Naples is already there.
Much like Miami, Naples relies heavily on tourism, luring visitors with its beaches, shopping, resorts, and dining. It is, however, much smaller than Miami, with a population of about 22,000 residents compared to Miami's 470,000.
This past weekend, tree-lined, tony Fifth Avenue South was bustling with activity. Families strolled the boulevard, gaggles of friends window shopped, and the cafés were filled with diners. Though most of the populace appeared to be adhering to physical-distancing protocols, the majority weren't wearing masks.
But two masked hostesses greeted me just inside the door of Osteria Tulia (466 Fifth Ave. S., Naples; 239-213-2073; osteriatulia.com) and informed me there'd be a two-hour wait for a table. Behind them, the bar area was closed, as were half the tables, which bore signs that read "Reserved for Social Distancing." The remainder of the tables were filled with diners drinking wine and laughing.
Chef Vincenzo Betulia didn't shutter his three Fifth Avenue restaurants when dining rooms were ordered closed in March. Instead, he and his staff pivoted directly to a takeout-and-delivery model. When the governor reopened most of Florida on May 4, Betulia reopened the dining rooms at Osteria Tulia and the French (365 Fifth Ave. S., Naples; 239-315-4019; thefrenchnaples.com), adhering to the mandated 25 percent capacity indoors and outside tables spaced six feet apart. (His other property, Bar Tulia, remains closed, though he's using some of the space to augment the seating capacity of Osteria Tulia, which is next door.)
"We've been full from right away day one [of the reopening]. We're doing more in sales on days like today than last year at full capacity, " Betulia said. He was quick to add, however, that the past week's brisk business hasn't come close to making up for the lost revenue of the prior few months: "I went from $20,000 a day to about $1,800 a day."
Betulia said the decision to open at 25 percent capacity was the right one for him. "We're a business and we have to continue," he reasoned. "I have 230 employees. After the closure order, 215 were furloughed. I stayed open any way I could. We were collecting tips and distributing it to the staff. I paid their health insurance. These people are my family and I have to take care of my family. If I have the opportunity as a business owner to open, then yeah, for sure I'm going for it. I'm not going to roll over and stay in bed. I'm going to work."
Betulia said the pandemic has spurred him to make changes in his business models, and not only for the short term. He's trying to lease part of an adjacent parking lot to make more space and a possible beer garden for Bar Tulia. At the French, he turned a breezeway into a makeshift cocktail café. And he challenged his chefs to incorporate meal kits and grab-and-go items into the menus going forward.
Still, he believes people still want to go out for a meal. "To see your food, to smell it, to be served — you're not going to experience that at home," he said. "Besides, my cacio e pepe needs to be eaten immediately. If you take it home, it gets too sticky."
A block closer to Naples Beach at the French, director of operations Colleen Dunavan told me the first week of service after reopening was like no other. "It was so strange," Dunavan said as I waited for a table to open up. "We had been out for about two months, and in that time everyone forgot their jobs to some degree."
She described the mood among the restaurant's clientele as cautiously jovial, adding, "A few regulars came over to shake my hand, and I had to explain that we can't do that anymore."
Though I was seated six feet from any other table, I could still hear the familiar clink of glasses and silverware from my neighbors. It was a perfect Florida evening, with low humidity and a slight breeze. For a few moments, sipping on a drink at a restaurant for the first time in two months, I forgot my fears about the future.
About nine months ago, Ivo Milanoski transformed a vintage 1968 Dairy Queen on Tamiami Trail into a taco shack. Less than a mile from the beach, Turco Taco (410 Ninth St, N., Naples; 239-331-4527; turcotaco.com) did a brisk business with families who wanted a quick and inexpensive meal after a day on the sand. When the coronavirus outbreak forced restaurants to close, Turco's pickup window allowed his staff to transition to takeout-only.
The Cinco de Mayo holiday coincided with the first week of phase one, and at Turco that translated to an hourlong wait for tacos. Milanoski offered water to the throng and reminded them to social-distance while they sipped beers in the parking lot. He said one local Mexican restaurant opened its bar that night but was promptly shut down by Naples Code Enforcement. "That is the problem," he said. "They lost their entire evening's revenue. If people just stick to the guidelines, I don't think there's any problem in opening."
On a balmy Saturday afternoon with nearly a week of phase one under his belt, Milanoski said business was running about 80 percent takeout but the eat-in trade was slowly returning. Sure enough, as I sat outside waiting for my tacos, the patio area began to fill.
Malinoski expressed hope that the families would again flock to Turco for post-beach tacos. He'd opted not to raise prices, even though he's now paying more for everything from the organic hormone-free chicken he uses to the plastic forks he buys.
Early Saturday evening, sunbathers were scattered along the shoreline. I skirted around a sand monster some kids had made, its teeth fashioned from broken shells, and turned my mask-free face toward the sun as it hovered over the waters of the Gulf. After having spent two months in self-imposed quarantine in a 730-square-foot apartment, I imagined this must be the way circus animals feel upon being retired to a cageless sanctuary to live out their lives. There must be something in the salt air that makes a person feel free.
But as I made my way south toward the Naples Pier, the crowds got thicker. Some groups were congregating beneath canopies. Loud music blared from a makeshift DJ rig a man had set up on the sand.
Six hours later, at midnight, the City of Naples announced that it was closing the beaches again because people weren't adhering to the social-distancing requirements.