While COVID-19 has caused uncertainty around the world, local restaurants are hoping to offer customers a sense of comfort through full stomachs.
Restaurant dine-in services were made available following Gov. Ron DeSantis' order to reopen the state’s economy Monday. While restaurants were allowed to open their doors, indoor seating is limited to 25 percent capacity with tables spaced at least 6 feet apart.
The state’s reopening is phase one of the U.S. government’s Opening Up America Again plan, a three-phased approach to stimulate the economy.
The Swamp Restaurant
Natalie Cimaglia, 22, said she doesn't think anything will be normal in a world where there is plexiglass between her and a Publix worker.
The recent UF public relations graduate attended The Swamp Restaurant’s reopening Monday for dinner and drinks with two of her friends. She said tables were distanced by 6 feet, and customers used disposable cups, bowls and silverware.
While Cimaglia said she felt safe in the restaurant, she also felt guilty.
“Of course quarantine has felt long, but we can’t just go back to a world where everything is fine and dandy,” she said. “It’s also really hard to see the world that you know change so drastically in a short amount of time.”
Ron DeFilippo has owned The Swamp for 26 years. It has closed because of hurricanes, he said, but never experienced a moment like this one.
Since reopening, seating is available both indoor and outdoor within the state’s social distancing requirements, DeFilippo said. Employees wear masks and gloves, as required by Alachua County’s updated emergency order. Customers are not required to wear masks while eating.
The restaurant, located at 1642 W. University Ave., held a Cinco de Mayo celebration Tuesday and offered discounted food and drinks.
To DeFilippo, the event was not aimed to increase revenue.
“The event was not overpowering, and it was focused on bringing people together,” he said. “Holidays are essential for communities.”
DeFilippo also said his goal was to benefit employees who were without work since the stay-at-home order began.
However, the restaurant has not returned to normal operation. The menu is reduced to basic items such as burgers and wings. Despite a limited menu, DeFilippo hopes the Swamp’s open doors will provide solace for the community.
“We’ve had spectacular weather, and with the amount of space in our yard, this is a great place for people to reconnect,” DeFillippo said.
Felipe’s Mexican Taqueria
Carly Wicksell, a 21-year-old UF education sciences senior, celebrated Cinco de Mayo with to-go food and margaritas from Felipe’s Mexican Taqueria.
She said it was clean and every worker wore masks, adding that she was pleased by how quickly the staff prepared her order despite the unusual circumstances.
“Not only did I feel safe, but I was also very impressed by the staff,” Wicksell said. “It really helped me feel a bit of normalcy in this crazy world.”
Felipe’s, located at 1209 W. University Ave., reopened its outside patio, but not its inside dining, General Manager Kyle O’Neal said. Customers must follow all of the state’s requirements, limit their visit to less than 45 minutes, wear masks when picking up orders and use the hand sanitizer placed on tables. On-site security is monitoring the outdoor patio to ensure these rules are followed.
As a business with five other locations, Felipe’s sales were down between 55 to 60 percent from last spring, O’Neal said. Despite a decrease in sales, Felipe’s kept its staff members during the takeout-only period.
Felipe’s celebrated Cinco de Mayo through a virtual party on Facebook Live hosted by Gainesville musician Elio Piedra. The event, featuring performers from Florida and Louisiana, had 5,600 views. The artists performed from their homes, taking turns in the virtual spotlight.
With Cinco de Mayo being one of the most profitable days of the year for Felipe’s, O’Neal initially had low expectations, but he said he and his employees were surprised by the turnout.
“At one point, we had 100 tickets come through from online orders,” he said. “We weren’t prepared for that, but it was wonderful.”
Dragonfly Sushi & Sake Company
However, not all restaurants are on board with reopening dine-in services. Dragonfly, a sushi restaurant and sake bar in downtown Gainesville, decided to stick to takeout and delivery.
General Manager Dave Piasecki said the restaurant hasn’t reopened to ensure maximum safety for both customers and employees.
“Employee morale has been high,” he said. “They appreciate our decision to stay closed. We’ve been able to retain 30 percent of our staff, and everyone is excited to get back to work when they can.”
Reshalla Ramsaran, a 22-year-old Gainesville resident, said she has gotten dinner to go from Dragonfly at least three times throughout the stay-at-home order. She said the food tasted great, and the bar served a majority of their regular drink options.
“I respect their decision to stay closed and help keep the numbers down,” she said. “They still have my business every Friday.”
Piasecki hopes Dragonfly will be able to reopen within a week or two, but he said the safety of his staff and guests is his main concern.
“We did not fail,” Piasecki said. “We will get back from this.”