An experimental plan to open street dining in a downtown stretch of Apalachicola is providing a boost to restaurateurs, as downtown businesses work to adapt to sagging tourism in the wake of the coronavirus.
But whether it will be enough to offset a significant drop in revenue over the last two months, and lead to a robust summer season, is still a giant question mark.
Tamara’s Café and The Owl Café have both taken advantage of a unanimous decision Friday morning by city commissioners to allow for the two-week closure of up to two dozen parking spaces, along one side of Avenue D, between Market and Water Streets, through noon on Monday, May 25.
A third restaurant, Hole in the Wall, is expected to also soon put up a tent on the side of the street across from the post office, as the others have done.
The new rules require that the seating be closed by 9 p.m., that all cleaning rules and social distancing be adhered to, and that the city be released from liability, and be added to the business’ insurance policy.
The rules also call for the businesses to provide city-approved barricades for traffic safety, and to have their employees park at least two blocks from the area.
"The city giving us the street has been a Hail Mary," said Danny Itzkovitz, owner of Tamara’s Café. "But if the governor doesn’t relax the ban on short-term rentals, as soon as the PPP money runs out, some restaurants and small businesses will go out of business. We’re depleting our finances."
The federal government’s multi-billion dollar Payroll Protection Program flowed buckets of money to county businesses, loans that they will not have to repay provided they spend at least three-quarters on keeping employees on the payroll, with the rest going to rents, mortgages and other approved expenses.
Those PPP monies enabled Itzkovitz to pay rent and keep eight employees on the payroll. He’s now added six more with the outdoor expansion, and the Owl Café has done so as well, as they hope to attract customers who will enjoy dining under the tents in front of their restaurants.
So far, though, the restaurateur says he’s seen business pick up mainly among locals who now can sit and dine rather than having to do take-out.
"It gives them somewhere to eat and not out of a Styrofoam box," he said. "And it’s enabled waitresses to get comfortable with a dining room outside and work the kinks out, so we’ll be prepared if and when the governor relaxes the restrictions on short-term rentals, instead of having to play catch-up."
He said downtown businesses, not just the ones along Avenue D, are all working to adapt to and work within rules that call for no more than 25 percent occupancy inside.
While High Five and the Apalachicola Ice Company, both bars that do not serve food, must remain shuttered, the others have reopened, the only exception being Market Street Social, which has announced its permanent closure.
Up to No Good, the Tap Room, The Station, and the Grill, all remain open, as well as The Chowder House in the Bowery, which put out lawn chairs as part of a robust Mother’s Day brunch. The Chocolate Company has adapted by adding pizzas to their menu, as they too remain open. The restaurant at The Gibson Inn remains closed, but that is due to its undergoing renovations and it is expected to reopen soon.
Restaurants on St. George Island and in Eastpoint and Carrabelle have all reopened as well, and many were represented among the 18 or so who attended a meeting Tuesday afternoon with Halsey Beshears, the former state representative for this area who now heads the Florida Department of Business of Professional regulations, which is empowered to enforce, along with local officials, many of Gov. DeSantis’ orders pertaining to the coronavirus,
The meeting, held in the conference room of the sheriff’s office, was set up by Sheriff A. J. Smith, and gave Beshears a chance to further outline the rules, and to hear first-hand the issues facing local businesses.
"They didn’t want people to be confused with all the executive orders," said Itzkovitz.
He said Beshears made it clear that "they don’t want to be terribly regulatory. They want to be helping businesses, and that everybody needs to use common sense."
Tables are to be set six feet apart, and people are not to be seated tightly at bars, but to use tables. "They don’t want you to belly up to the bar," said Itzkovitz.
"Halsey knows exactly what’s going on," he said. "He’s pleaded with the governor ‘Don’t bundle us with South Florida’ and he feels the governor is listening and we’ll be out of this rental situation very soon."
Prior to the end of the two-week trial period, Apalachicola city commissioners are expected to meet to consider any further changes to the rules. Commissioner Adriane Elliott has signaled she would like to see a possible expansion of rules for other retailers, as well as a possible closure of portions of Commerce Street.
"This is just a trial attempting to find ways to help local business and protect public health during Covid 19," said Mayor Kevin Begos. "The city can stop this experiment if there are any problems at any time."
For now, Itzkovitz voiced the feelings of his fellow business people that time is of the essence.
"We’re all trying to get a piece of pie, but there’s only so many local residents who can afford to eat out on a a regular basis," he said. "If we can’t get some summer tourism, there’s absolutely no way we’re going to survive."