The rapid spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus has led to Hillsborough County locking down on the way restaurants operate. Though they are less than a week into the changes, many Plant City establishments are eyeing the future with concern.
Local restaurants have been granted a minor reprieve following a vote by the Hillsborough County Emergency Policy Group Thursday afternoon.
The EPG discussed implementing an ordinance that would force all restaurants in Hillsborough County to switch entirely to takeout or delivery, which would lead to the immediate end of any sit-in style meals in an effort to combat the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus.
However, after much back-and-forth at the dais — which was largely spearheaded by Plant City Mayor Rick Lott — the alteration was pushed off for at least another week.
The EPG is comprised of three county commissioners, the mayors from the cities of Plant City, Tampa and Temple Terrace, the county sheriff and the chairman of the school board.
The current ordinance, which was put into place earlier this week and went into effect on Tuesday, allows restaurants to stay open until 10 p.m. as long as they are at half occupancy capacity. It’s the first step toward government-implemented isolation to help minimize the spread of COVID-19 in Hillsborough County.
As many in the EPG repeatedly stated during Thursday’s meeting, increased testing throughout the county will inevitably lead to higher confirmed counts of those infected. COVID-19 is here and it’s spreading. The key now is to find a balance between minimizing the contagion while also not causing irreparable harm to local businesses.
“I saw that our restaurant community was doing a great job of practicing and implementing the ordinance we approved on Tuesday,” Lott said. “I’m very proud of how our citizens were reacting to the change and how they are accepting the change to the procedures for our restaurants. Our restaurant community had great attitudes and they did a phenomenal job in cleaning the restaurants and disinfecting the tables as patrons came and went. Without us having to place any enforcement, they obeyed the ruling of 50 percent capacity. It just showed the willingness of everyone, that everyone is trying to keep normalcy in our community as well as protect our community.”
Part of the problem, which Lott brought up to his fellow EPG members, was restaurants have had only approximately 48 hours to adjust to the massive change. While most are fully aware that the time will more than likely come where they will have to refuse any non-delivery patrons, they have not had time to adequately prepare.
Lott told the group that in his discussions with restaurant owners around town, he has heard stories of both “winners” and “losers.” The winners were the restaurants that are already primarily takeout-heavy, like pizza and chicken wing establishments. They were prepared for this sudden demand and have adjusted to the change.
“I’m blessed to say that no matter what comes our way, the community has always come out and supported us,” Ali Sobh, owner of Hungry Howie’s Pizza, 208 N. Alexander St., said. “I don’t think the solution, if I’m being honest with you, is to close my buffet. This week I was feeding young kids for free during the week, and I’m offering free delivery to anyone 55 years old and up. If it continues, I’ll just deal with it however I have to.”
Sobh said his dine-in business has essentially remained the same so far, but he has seen an increase in his carryout and delivery calls. The most notable change has been in the quantity ordered. Most families are calling for three or four pizzas at a time. He said he isn’t sure if families are hunkering down together to ride out this storm or if they’re saving up for a few days at a time, but the orders have undoubtedly increased.
He knows the conversation of closing the dine-in service is on the table and said he doesn’t believe his business will face too much of an impact if that change is enforced because of his successful delivery service.
His employees will also be taken care of regardless of what happens, as the buffet aspect doesn’t require too much manpower anyway, he said. He added they have always practiced impeccable hygiene, so that hasn’t really been altered, but he has made it a point to stress to all of his staff that if anyone feels sick, they need to stay home and he’ll pay them for their day off.
Sobh has developed a reputation around the community for his tendency to give back and he said any business in town that needs some help should drop by during a workday to talk to him.
“Right now I think I’m optimistic, but I am worried about the aftermath for this community,” Sobh said. “People don’t have money to lose and are now off work for a month. The money stops coming in, but the bills don’t. That’s why we’re all about finding a price point to make this work. We don’t want to get rich right now, we want to provide as many homes with food as possible while still paying our employees and our bills. You have to find a price point and give people good service and good food. I just have to make sure that everyone in this town has enough to eat. It will be a cold day in hell before someone in Plant City goes hungry as long as I’m here. That’s what this community is about. And we see that.”
His optimism is infectious and it’s a big reason so many continue to come through his door. Customers will often spend an hour eating and chatting with him before returning home.
His story, however, does not appear to be the norm in this time of confusion.
Establishments that based the majority of their income on sit-in diners have to quickly decide to either close their doors until this pandemic ends or completely overhaul their operations to accommodate a delivery and takeout routine. Lott said one business told him they already placed an order for takeout boxes, but that the supplies had not arrived yet and if the EPG changed the ordinance before the materials arrived, they would be forced to close indefinitely as they would not be prepared.
Manny Roussos, owner of The Wooden Spoon Diner at 712 S. Collins St., is faced with a decision he never saw coming: stay open and hope that’s enough to support his employees, or close in an attempt to stay afloat and feel as if he’s turned his back on his work family.
“My biggest issue is my employees if I’m being honest,” Roussos said. “Yeah, I’m losing money, it’s insane how we are losing money. It’s a 60 to 70 percent drop and when you’re going into your busiest month of the year and you have a 70 percent drop, you’re faced with some hard decisions. I don’t like to close my dining room for the simple fact that my servers and my dish washers and all of that comes into play. I can’t be selfish. I see my people as family… Yes, it’s going to be a big challenge, but on the other side I can’t treat my employees like that. We are either a family or we aren’t. I cannot turn my back on them.”
His dining room is currently open at half capacity and The Wooden Spoon is also offering curbside and to-go orders. Roussos has even been creating special deals in hopes of not only drawing more people in, but also helping others since “everyone is struggling.” But he’s not seeing any change. Customers are either trickling into the dining room or they’re not coming at all. So far, there’s been practically no movement when it comes to his curbside orders.
If the EPG ends up forcing in-house dining to shut down, Roussos said he simply doesn’t know what he’ll do.
Owen Johnson, co-owner with his family members of Johnson’s Barbeque and Fred’s Market Restaurant, was one of the first to switch fully to curbside pickup and takeout. At the end of last week he saw the number of customers taper off, but it wasn’t until Saturday that they fully realized the impact of COVID-19 on the community.
“It was drastic, an overnight change,” Johnson said. “I would say that it was probably a 60 to 75 percent difference overnight. Since then, we decided to obviously just do takeout. The barbecue place too, not just Fred’s. With Fred’s, we figured that was the best thing to do because as many people as there are in contact with each other around a buffet, for safety reasons it seemed like the right decision — for, really, our customers and our staff. For both restaurants we are offering a limited menu for takeout. You can call in and drive up and our servers are taking orders to the cars.”
You can also just drive up to Fred’s,1401 W. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., and place an order and for Johnson’s Barbeque, 1407 W. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., you can place orders online if that’s your preference at johnsonbarbeque.com. The phone numbers for each are posted on their websites.
While the community’s response to the shift has been positive, it’s still nowhere near the number of customers the restaurants are used to serving. Johnson said the reaction from his staff, however, has been humbling.
“Some of our younger team members have said, ‘I don’t necessarily need the money, so give my hours to someone who’s providing for their family,’ and everyone really has been so understanding,” Johnson said. “So much of small business is dedicated to providing employment. It’s not about making a bunch of money on every plate we sell. So much of what we do is to provide employment and so of course that’s the first thing that’s affected. We have hunkered down and are going to ride it out as long as we can. I’m cautiously confident, within reason. As long as this doesn’t extend months, we should be alright. But if it goes on for more than three or four weeks, I don’t know.”
In the past, Krazy Kup, 101 E. J. Arden Mays Blvd., had always been a mecca for camaraderie downtown. It was often difficult to find an empty table both inside and outside. Now owner Frank Trunzo said they’re doing everything they can to make sure that health — both their customers’ and their staff’s — is the top priority.
The back room of the coffee house will close indefinitely starting tomorrow and seating is heavily spaced out inside the front of the shop. Trunzo said while starting on Tuesday they saw a large drop in customers, overall they have seen an uptick in people popping in and getting coffee to go. Those who do stick around have been flocking to the outdoor seating, both in front of the coffee house and in the park across the railroad tracks.
They’ve remained open and Trunzo said they plan to continue to do so as long as they safely can. He said the goal is to be able to work hard to make sure his crew has enough hours so “they’re not high and dry.”
It’s been a shocking turn of events, to say the least, and it came at the most inopportune time. Trunzo said the business had just started to finally see the numbers — attendance at events and customer-wise — they had been striving for over the past few years. Then COVID-19 hit and sent them back to square one. Regardless, he hasn’t yet lost hope.
“I don’t worry, that’s not my mandate or my style,” Trunzo said. “Here’s my bottom line that I’m saying about our upcoming election and the status quo of our nation: We are going to find out the soul of our people, of our nation. The soul of our nation is going to reveal itself. And I have faith the goodness of the world is going to win out.”
It’s a tough decision and one that will continue to come up with the EPG. Today, others at the dais, including Andrew “Andy” Ross, vice mayor of Temple Terrace, agreed that forcing the change immediately was not the right move. Echoing Lott’s sentiments, he added that giving restaurants another week to adjust was the responsible thing to do for the collective business owners.
Ultimately, everyone got on board with postponing the decision to end in-house dining and the conversation was pushed back to a future meeting.
“I think today what you heard in the policy group is us trying to find that balance between eradicating the virus while still staying a viable community where people can be citizens,” Lott said.
The EPG will meet again at 1:30 p.m. March 23.