ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Business owners across much of Florida were busy Sunday preparing to reopen under new restrictions. Restaurants spaced out tables six-feet apart and salon owners begged to be considered in Monday's cautious, phase-one reopening.
In downtown St. Petersburg, Ryan Pines shuffled chairs and hoisted bottles of disinfectant around Buya Ramen, a large and usually bustling restaurant that sits on the city's Central Avenue.
“We've pulled out the entire kitchen and are bleaching and disinfecting everything," the beverage director said Sunday.
Like restaurants around the state, Buya will be allowed to operate at 25 percent capacity starting Monday, and allow seating outside. And along with many restaurants barely getting by on takeout business, he hopes the measures will boost the bottom line.
The normally busy restaurant closed in mid-March and has been doing 20 percent of their normal sales because they're offering takeout. His workers are eager to get back, saying many still haven't received the unemployment benefits they applied for.
Elsewhere, thousands of Floridians are also antsy to work, to live, to get back to normal — whatever that will look like. As of Sunday, Florida had just over 36,000 coronavirus cases, with around 1,379 deaths — including some 600 new cases Sunday.
Gov. Ron DeSantis said he's deliberately taking things slowly during re-opening.
“I know some folks are saying, ‘Hey, flip the switch and just be done with it,’ but the country has never handled an epidemic like we have with this one,” he said during a press conference in Daytona Beach on Sunday. “I think being safe, smart and step by step is the appropriate way to handle that.”
In South Florida, the three most populated counties are still not allowed to advance to phase-one with the rest of the state. But some chose to move forward anyway. On Saturday, several restaurants along Fort Lauderdale beach were seating diners, even though it's supposed to be take-out only. The majority of those out and about weren't wearing mandatory face masks, including a hostess who seated diners at one restaurant.
The governor announced the state had finally received 200,000 coronavirus antibody tests to see how many may have already had the virus. That data will help be useful in deciding how to reopen other industries going forward, he said.
The tests will be distributed this week to hospitals, drive-through testing sites and potentially through a partnership with a university to do a scientific, random sample testing.
The state will also continue to ramp up regular testing, DeSantis said, noting that they are testing between 15,000 and 20,000 a day with the capacity to test much more. Many of the drive-through test sites around the state are nowhere near capacity each day and could test at least 1,000 more, he said.
He's also allowing pharmacists to administer virus tests. Walgreens will have nine test sites throughout the state. Walmart will have five drive-thru spots and CVS is also jumping onboard soon.
But even as the state expands testing and residents are feeling stir-crazy, it's unclear how many will feel safe enough to venture into newly opened restaurants and stores and whether the limited business hours will be enough to save already flailing mom and pops.
Jeff Connelly, the owner of Grassroots Kava House in St. Pete, said he's not opening for a while and will continue to offer curbside takeout, worrying that many customers linger for hours under normal circumstances.
“My main concern is that we're going to have a massive crush of people. How do you control that?”
In Inlet Beach on Florida's Panhandle, Angela Sanford said she’s eager to visit one of the newly opened state parks, “but only if they’re not too crowded.”
The 39-year-old self-employed gig worker drove by the beaches and lamented they were packed, spotting several out of state license plates from Louisiana and Georgia.
“I think it’s dangerous and irresponsible to open the beach at this point. We haven’t had many COVID cases here in the Panhandle because the beaches were closed,” she said. “Now that they are open again, tourists will come and potentially spread the virus.”
In the Orlando area, hair and nail salon owners met with DeSantis over the weekend, begging him to let them reopen and promising they could do so safely with new protocols like only allowing one customer in at a time, using disposable capes and requiring employees and customers to wear masks.
Mike Van del Abbeel, owner of Mosaic Hair Studio, said customers want to wear masks and feel secure and business owners feel the responsibility of delivering that.
“In this industry there’s one thing that will really ruin you quickly and that’s online reviews. No one wants a bad Google or yelp review about inferior sanitation right now,” he said.
DeSantis urged patience, saying he's also eager for a haircut and to see sporting events and restaurants bustling with people, but cautioned it will take time.
“Tomorrow is just one step. It's certainly not the Florida we had in February, but we obviously want to get to where we’re back in the saddle.”
Kennedy reported from Fort Lauderdale