Dining in the streets: Tampa program closes roads so restaurants have room to distance customers

Restaurant owners say a new program in Tampa, allowing them to set up tables on city streets, will help them recover from the COVID-19 economic downturn.

“It is a complete game-changer,” said Jason Fernandez, who owns three restaurants in Ybor City. “It gives the business an opportunity to survive.”

Fernandez says the governor’s limitation of 25% capacity inside restaurants would squeeze so hard that neither he nor his staff could pay their bills.

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“When the mayor came out with this idea of having seating in the streets, we were elated," Fernandez said. "We knew we had a fighting chance here.”

One of his restaurants is Tequilas on 7th Avenue, where Cinco de Mayo now comes with social distancing, which is mandated by the mayor’s plan.

“There won’t be any milling around the bar. You have to have a seat to get service,” Fernandez said.

But he's happy to abide by the new rules to keep everyone can stay safe.

While most places throughout Tampa seemed to abide by the social distancing guidelines, a crowd still managed to gather outside Green Lemon on South Howard.

A few dozen people, some patrons waiting for to-go orders and others waiting to get inside, lined the sidewalk and spilled into the closed-down roadway.

At one point a restaurant employee asked a few dozen people to remember the social distancing guidelines. Later, code enforcement officials got involved, but the restaurant decided to shut down for the day announcing the closure in a Facebook post, saying that customer and employee health and safety had to come first. 

Ybor's 7th Avenue is one of several so-called 'restaurant and retail recovery zones' in the city. Other areas where streets are blocked off include downtown Tampa, Tampa Heights, and Old Hyde Park Village, where Forbici Italian Restaurant will celebrate its first anniversary next month.

“We knew it was tough to open a restaurant, but we didn’t know it would be this tough,” said owner Joe Guggino.

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Workers set up a large tent in the blocked-off street. They hope to seat over 200 people for Mother's Day. Many staff members are being called back.

“Throughout this process, we have employed over 30 people and now we’re able to take it to about 60, so we’re pretty much where we were pre-COVID,” Guggino said.

It’s a 14-day pilot program, but it may continue if it’s successful and if restaurant seating restrictions continue.

View the map of road closures at https://www.tampagov.net/sites/default/files/map-lift-up-local-cafe-retail-zones.pdf.

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