ORANGE PARK – There was a flier on every table at Tom and Betty’s Restaurant Tuesday during lunch, reminding customers that for the first time in nearly seven months, they were finally allowed to …
ORANGE PARK – There was a flier on every table at Tom and Betty’s Restaurant Tuesday during lunch, reminding customers that for the first time in nearly seven months, they were finally allowed to sit anywhere they wanted.
Restaurants in Florida finally were allowed to open their doors without restricted capacities. And with it came, at long last, a semblance of relief amid the destruction of lives and livelihoods created by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis moved the state into Phase III of its recovery plan on Sept. 25. Restaurants and bars that have been limited for months to 50% capacity suddenly were allowed fill every seat. Areas once guarded by signs and tape to create more distancing and reduce crowds were re-opened. Almost immediately, chairs were taken off tables and barstools were dusted throughout the county.
Tom and Betty’s owner Valarie Atkinson said her relief is tempered by the challenge to recover from an economic nightmare that came with mandatory shutdown.
“It’s been horrible,” she said. “We’re still not close to being where we were this time last year. It will take at least another year to recover, even if we get all of our customers back.
“But at least it’s a start.”
Elaine Cassala said Whitey’s Fish Camp on Fleming Island had a good weekend following DeSantis’ order. She already had partitions installed between booths and servers are still required to wear masks. But to finally have a plan to move forward was the first real chance to expect some sense of normalcy.
“It was difficult,” the co-owner said. “Opening back to 100% means we are able to potentially get back to where we once were. It’s doing to take a while to do that, but we’re still grateful to where we are.”
Hundreds of employees were laid off during the shutdown that started in March. A few were able to return once the governor first opened restaurants to 25% capacity and then to 50%, but many are still without work.
Johnny’s Bar-B-Q and Catering in Keystone Heights immediately started calling furloughed employees following last week’s announcement.
“What to reopening meant to me was our servers,” said owner Johnny Mason. “They’ve taken the real brunt of this shutdown. This was their paycheck. They survive on tips. When we were allowed to get back to 100%, the first thing I did was try to get them back to work.”
Like most local establishments, Phase III was a significant step toward climbing from a hole of economic distress and anxiety.
“We’ve been pulling money out of our own pockets to keep open,” Atkinson said. “My husband [Duane] works another job and some of that goes into here. It’s going to take a while, but we’re going to make it.
“Our customers are like family. I think everybody understands the situation. We’re still keeping our tables separated. We’ve moved some of them outside to give everyone a little more space. The challenge now is to make sure customers feel comfortable coming back out.”
One couple, Guy and Elaine Poirier, came from Lake City to have lunch at the cozy diner.
“I think it’s wonderful that things are starting to get back to normal,” Guy said.
Mason isn’t taking any chances, either. He’s hired a company that specializes in sanitation and disinfection to keep his restaurant as clean as possible. They use a variety of disinfectants and a fogging machine to reduce the chances of the virus being transmitted.
“It’s not cheap, but it’s worth it,” he said.