Say this much for Florida: It knows how to power through a winter. In late 2020, when most of the country was restricting its dining, even outdoors, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis decided to keep the legal capacity at 100% since he raised it there in September.
If you’re running a restaurant in Florida, you’re fully aware of the ways different diners have interpreted the situation. Most people have preferred to sit outside (Florida in the winter and the spring is all about the outdoors), turning some restaurant patios into densely packed groups of unmasked strangers — a recipe for guests and staff alike to feel concern. Still, tourism was down in the winter and many restaurateurs and bar owners have been scrapping to stay afloat.
For anyone returning to the game after missing time during the pandemic, there’s a lot to catch up on. Here’s where to start.
There’s good news and less-good news regarding DeSantis’s handling of restaurants and Covid restrictions. The good: You’re free to open for business in something very close to a normal fashion. The guidance the state issued for the current phase of the state’s Covid response reads:
Restaurants and food service establishments may operate at full capacity with limited social distancing protocols. Businesses should maintain adequate sanitation practices among employees and patrons during all hours of operation. Menus, if laminated, should continue to be cleaned after each usage. Paper menus shall be designed for single use and then disposed of immediately after use.
Pretty simple, and far less onerous than other places in the country. (If you’d like to take a look at what your West Coast counterparts have to do to reopen, check out our California restaurant reopening guide.)
The less-good news is, DeSantis has also removed some of the tools you might otherwise have if you were hoping to enforce a more careful environment inside your business. Tourists in particular tend to get pretty strident when you tell them they cannot do something or that they must do something — such as wearing masks inside your bar or restaurant. DeSantis has decreed that whatever you decide to impose at your restaurant, the state won’t fine or punish people who don’t mask up.
State lawmakers have moved to shield businesses from Covid-related legal liability. And the state’s also moving to make carry-out alcohol orders permanently legal, citing Florida restaurants’ proving during the pandemic that they could sell high-octane road sodas safely and responsibly. A round of applause, everyone, we did it.
The race is on for your share of the $29 billion that will flow to businesses through the Restaurant Revitalization Fund (RRF). Get on it, if you haven’t already. The money is first-come, first-serve, though there are carveouts for smaller businesses, so you’re not competing directly against the biggest operators when you apply.
You may qualify for other small business grants or low-interest loans, as well. The best central resource for those might be the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association, which has local chapters wherever you are in the state. There’s been so much money flying around, you really need someone tapped into the developments and deadlines.
The most germane guidance you’re likely to get from a government agency these days is almost certainly at the county level, in Florida. A phone call to the local health department is a great place to start.
Outside of that, just take a note from the concise and effective Miami-Dade guidelines for restaurants:
The state health department offers a Covid flyer, fit for laminating and posting, to get your staff prepared to wash more, and to monitor their health. This is kind of a big one: People can’t simply rush back to work once they’ve taken leave for Covid symptoms. So make sure you have policies in place that allow people to take at least 10 days off while they stay home.
The National Restaurant Association has made free a course of Covid safety videos (with some in Spanish) to prepare your staff for the new realities around keeping everything sanitary. Your biggest short-term concern is probably going to be PPE: providing it, keeping it fresh, making sure people actually use it. The last thing anyone wants to wear in a hot kitchen is a face covering. But that’s where we are these days.
Because the state doesn’t require people to wear masks indoors, you may run into patrons who insist your rules don’t apply to them. In fact, that sort of person is almost the definition of a Floridian, which most of the time has its charms. But if it becomes a persistent problem, consider posting a more senior staffer at the front of your establishment. It may be easier for that person, rather than a junior staffer, to assertively insist that you as the proprietor have the right to deny service to anyone who’s putting your workers’ health at risk.
Just as Covid has presented a ton of new rules for operating your restaurant, it’s also changed some of the best practices around digital marketing. The best advice here is to read the room, and to position yourself accordingly. Do you want your establishment to be a place where people come to forget about the pandemic? Florida law gives you wide latitude to create that atmosphere. Or do you want people to consider your more regimented health and safety rules before they arrive? You can do that, as well. Whichever direction you pick, there’s going to be an audience available in your wild, diverse state. Anything goes in Florida, after all — rules included.