Four Owners Discuss Changes
On March 20, 2020, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis closed all restaurants for on-premises dining, limiting them to carryout and delivery service. Over six weeks later, on May 4, he allowed Florida restaurants to reopen for outdoor dining and 25% of indoor capacity, then expanded that to 50% capacity on May 18, with Lee County taking the additional step to allow establishments with outdoor dining options to temporarily expand those. The Governor’s ongoing restrictions on outdoor dining include required social distancing. Seating at bar counters in restaurants remains prohibited and bars, as defined by more than 50% of revenue from alcohol sales, remain closed by DeSantis’ Executive Orders.
As Fort Myers Beach restaurants gradually continue the slow climb up from a near total shutdown, the Island Sand Paper spoke with four owners of local restaurants to hear about their experiences.
Marty Harrity & Mark Marinello
Doc Ford’s – 708 Fishermans Wharf
The Whale – 1249 Estero Boulevard
Dixie Fish Company – 714 Fishermans Wharf
Marty: While it was great to reopen, the 25% restriction was not even enough to cover our costs, but now that we can go to 50%, at least business is a lot better, but we still have a long way to go. We are fortunate we are able to survive, because we have a dedicated clientele. It cost us a lot of money, however, to keep our people on payroll and cover benefits, so Thank God for the Payroll Protection Program money! Fortunately all our restaurants have outside dining options, and we always pass our Florida Department of Health inspections with flying colors, so we just enhanced what we already successfully do.
Mark: These are all functions of how we now do business so it is what it is! Our staff, however, do not wear gloves, nor face masks unless the customer asks them to put on one. Statistics prove that washing your hands regularly is more effective than gloves, because once a gloved hand touches any surface, you must immediately change them. As for our customers, only about 2% enter our restaurants wearing masks.
Marty: We have a protocol for our employees. We take their temperature and they must answer a set of questions about how they feel, and we send anyone home who does not pass those. They must wash their hands at least once every 15 minutes, but we leave it up to them as to whether or not to wear a mask, based on their comfort level, and so far 95% choose not to. Just like with gloves, once you touch a surface then your mask, you contaminate it and defeat the purpose. So far, our customers don’t seem to mind and they rarely wear masks because obviously you must take it off to eat.
Mark: Our customers tell us often they are happy we have reopened and are very happy to be back, so the reaction is overwhelmingly positive. That said, travel is down and hotel and vacation rentals are down, and we are just at 50% indoor occupancy, so there is a long way to go. We are lucky to live in Florida, as this is still a travel destination and I see that as a positive, so we love to see everybody and can’t wait to get back to normal!
Marty: Governor DeSantis is doing an unbelievable job in guiding us all through this, but now is the time to reopen, and you can tell that by the smiles on the faces of the people we see. Personally, I am happy and relieved we are in the process of reopening to full services, after eight weeks of being essentially shut down. I wish the Town of Fort Myers Beach were more understanding of what we businesses are going through, as we put up some extra signs to let everyone know we are open, and they sent us violation letters; that does not make any sense to me, so talk about a lack of compassion! Our restaurants are open daily from 11 a.m. to close, so come on out and have a good time, as we love to see you!
1131 First Street, Downtown FMB
“When we first thought about reopening, we made fundamental changes in how we operate, including how to completely sanitize our restaurant due to coronavirus concerns. We dedicated certain employees to constantly clean high-touch surfaces like doorknobs and handrails, and have sanitary stations all throughout the restaurant for our guests. We changed our bussing techniques, use individual towels that we throw away for every table and have disposable paper menus.
“While we had to make some indoor changes to comply with first the 25% then 50% seating restrictions, Nervous Nellies has a large outdoor dining patio. As a result, we are already back to welcoming 75 to 80 percent of our normal guest capacity, so those interior restrictions do not hurt us much. The major difference for us is we do not have anyone at our bar. Now that Lee County and the Town allowed hotels and vacation rentals to reopen, our sales recently shot back up to being close to where they were at this time last year, so that is actually pretty good and much further along than I ever hoped we might be after the shutdown, so I am very happy to say that.
“Our entire staff wears face masks and gloves. I was not sure how our guests would react to servers coming to their table in face masks, as I am kind-of an old school guy, but I have not received one negative comment. The steps we took to ensure social distancing and additional cleanliness are drawing rave reviews, not only in person but on social media, as everything we see and hear is extremely positive! Customers are very happy we take these extra steps for their safety, so I learned that my initial skepticism was misguided. As far as the customers themselves, I estimate that only about 20% are wearing face masks, but because so many of our guests dine outside on the patio, I think that gives them a greater comfort level being here.
“Nervous Nellies is known for our extensive menu, so an early big decision was if we would cut back on our offerings, to keep our food products fresh, but we decided to see what would happen when we reopened, and because business recovered so fast, we felt comfortable leaving it as is. We are now looking down the barrel of the summer season and are already hearing on social media that people from all across the nation are in a hurry to return to Fort Myers Beach. The lockdowns created a lot of pent-up demand and judging by our sales already, I think we and most island businesses will have a great summer – I really do!
“Nervous Nellies is open daily from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. It has been a rough last few months, but we look forward to things slowly getting back to normal and can’t wait to see you here soon!”
7205 Estero Boulevard, Santini Marina Plaza
“When we reopened (indoor dining) at 25% and now expanded to 50% capacity, it was important to us that we played by the rules, as I think diners are looking for establishments who do so. We seat guests at every other table and now have high tables near our bar, so that those people who prefer to congregate at the bar area now have that option. Overall, we are conducting business pretty much the same. Fortunately for us, we have a large outdoor dining area in the concourse of our building that we can use to its 100% capacity and that is a big advantage to us!
“Our servers, bartenders and staff all wear face masks but not gloves. It is not only hard to establish that intimacy with the guests while you are wearing a face mask, but our bartenders are all such pretty girls with dynamic smiles and right now you can only see their eyes and not their beautiful faces or gleaming teeth, so that is a pity! While all of our staff wears masks, not many of our guests do, but that makes sense, because you cannot eat or drink wearing one.
“Customers order off of iPads that we thoroughly clean every time someone uses one and we already kept our restaurant spotless, so we did not have to institute much change there. The biggest challenge really is following all the new rules, as things often change quickly or are inconsistent, meaning it is difficult to know what the rules currently are. There are very few guidelines and you hope that all your competitors follow them as well, to create a level playing field.
“Skye’s is open daily from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Our customers are so happy that we are back open and we not only want to sincerely thank everyone for your support during this difficult time but look forward to serving you again!”