Is It Safe to Eat Out?

How Local Restaurants Are Handling COVID-19 Safety Precautions

Restaurants have instituted a number of new safety measures, but dozens of complaints about a lack of social distancing have been filed with the state.

By Cooper Levey-Baker August 4, 2020

Image: Shutterstock

"No masks and no social distancing."

"Not properly cleaning and sanitizing."

"Packed with customers."

Since early May, when the state of Florida began allowing restaurants to reopen for in-person dining after being closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, dozens of people have filed complaints with the Florida Department of Business & Professional Regulation, reporting local restaurants they said were violating the state's new social distancing rules.

Those rules currently allow restaurants to serve customers inside up to 50 percent of the building's capacity. Outdoors, there are no limits on occupancy, but tables must be kept far enough apart to allow for social distancing.

Joe Farrell, the owner of Pop's Sunset Grill in Nokomis, says his restaurant has been visited eight different times for social distancing inspections and has earned what he calls a "clean bill of health" each time. "They go through every inch of the place," he says.

About 80 percent of the seating at Pop's is outdoors, which forced the restaurant to shift most of its tables so they sit at least 10 feet apart. Inside, all the bar seats have been removed, but the restaurant has placed tables near the bar so bartenders can serve customers. Overall, the restaurant has approximately 100 fewer seats available than it normally does.

Employees wear masks and the restaurant encourages customers to wear masks, as well. One worker does nothing but wipe down common surfaces throughout the restaurant. Pop's also has two people whom Farrell calls the "social distancing police," employees who assist the bartenders and redirect parties who might be closer than six feet to one another. "It's a constant jockeying," Farrell says.

(On Friday, Pop's was the site of a violent attack by a man who identified himself as a "white supremacist" and struck a Pop's employee. The man was arrested for battery and disturbing the peace.)

Pop's has also developed a protocol for what happens if an employee tests positive for COVID-19. Within an hour of learning that one employee had tested positive, the restaurant shut down and customers were notified of the positive test. The restaurant remained closed for days, as each of the other employees underwent testing. Only after each test came back negative did the restaurant reopen. Farrell says the restaurant has prioritized communicating clearly with the public. "Our whole approach was to be very open," Farrell says.

Since restaurants were allowed to reopen, state regulators have received 34 complaints about 26 different Sarasota County restaurants. In Manatee County, 22 complaints have been lodged against 19 different restaurants. In addition to inspections performed by the Florida Department of Business & Professional Regulation, the Sarasota County Sheriff's Office has also received and responded to complaints about improper social distancing. Last month, deputies responded to 17 different complaints about businesses not following social distancing rules. A spokesperson for the agency could not specify how many of those 17 complaints were directed at restaurants.

Some restaurants, like Sarasota's Sage and Bradenton's Linger Lodge, have temporarily closed down until the pandemic passes. Those that have remained open are navigating a confusing landscape of shifting regulations and best practices. Two local restaurants were recently recognized by the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association for their high standards of safety and sanitation: Sarasota's Michael's on East and Ellenton's Anna Maria Oyster Bar.

Café Gabbiano on Siesta Key has been visited just once by state regulators since reopening, says owner Marc Grimaud. His restaurant has marked many of its tables off-limits so customers remain spaced out. The restaurant does a temperature check on all staffers to ensure they are healthy and cleans all common areas at least every 30 minutes. Gabbiano has also added a touchless payment process and created new curbside pickup guidelines.

"We're pretty strict," Grimaud says.

Venice Pier Group, which owns Venice's Sharky's on the Pier, Fins at Sharky's and Snook Haven, has also instituted several new safety rules. Company president and co-owner Justin Pachota says all three restaurants shifted their outdoor seating to create more space, and plexiglass barriers were installed between booths. He says the new rules have been tough for his staff, who have to cover more ground between tables and must wear masks while serving outside in the summer heat. "Their jobs are much harder," Pachota says.

"It is really difficult to wear a mask," Farrell agrees. "We've had four weeks with a heat index over 100. If you've never hustled for a five-hour shift with a mask on, it's really tough. We've had a lot of training on heat exhaustion."

Even with the new restrictions, the Venice Pier Group restaurants did a good amount of business earlier in the summer, but have seen traffic slow down more recently. Pachota estimates that July's sales were down 30 percent from the previous July. That's a blow to his employees, who rely on a busy July serving tourists who drive in from nearby markets for summertime vacations to make it through the traditionally slow months of August and September. The restaurant was also forced to close for a week when two employees tested positive for COVID-19.

Asked what he might tell a customer who's scared to eat out, Pachota emphasizes how seriously his restaurants are taking safety. "Where else can you go right now, where, if someone doesn't wash their hands, their boss is getting on their case?" he says. "We do temperature checks. We're using disposable products. We're going through three times as much hand soap and sanitizer. As far as safety goes, it's out No. 1 priority. We put as much emphasis on safety and sanitation as we do on great food and great service."

Farrell has gone before the Sarasota County Commission asking that the board create a countywide mask mandate, but the commission has so far refused to do so. He says he's concerned that if restaurants don't follow the state's guidelines and the number of new cases continues to rise, the state may once again halt all in-person dining.

At Gabbiano, Grimaud has seen a late summer slowdown and the restaurant has also suffered from a loss of catering business. Located near the Siesta Key sand, it often handles beach weddings, but nearly all of those have either been canceled or delayed a year.

Asked if he feels safe dining out, Grimaud calls it a "hard question to answer." He has been to restaurants that have not followed social distancing rules and says he won't return, but others have earned his trust. "I feel safe with the restaurants I know," he says.

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