Lunch crowds return as restaurants allowed to increase capacity to 50% across Flordia

Many have a new appreciation of simple things, like going out to a restaurant. 

“I’m glad to be out and about, seeing people,” said Kristie Dixon as she ate lunch at the new Datz in Riverview.

Last week, restaurants across Florida opened under new rules, including a dining room capacity of no more than 25% the usual allowance. 

This Monday was the first day of another set of new rules from Governor Ron DeSantis, which upped the maximum capacity for restaurants to 50% for indoor dining. It’s a boost for restaurant owners, but many say they're still in a deep hole.

“With the entire Datz restaurant group, we started with 375 [employees],” said Suzanne Perry. “We went down to 27.”

Workers were laid off and worried because, "this is what’s paid my bills for all these years," said Liz Warner, who has worked in restaurants for 15 years. "This is what I know.”

But with the governor’s new order, there was a lunch crowd at the new Datz in Riverview, Perry said they have hired back nearly all their staff at all three of their locations.

“Very close to 100%, even though we’re at reduced capacity,” Perry said. “But it's fine because everyone is a little bit out of practice right now... We haven’t been functioning as a restaurant for two months. “

The Columbia Restaurant Group stayed closed under the 25% rule. But at 50%, they opened their Sarasota restaurants Monday and scheduled other openings later this week.

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“Ulele opens on Wednesday,” says owner Richard Gonzmart. “And on Thursday the original Columbia Restaurant opens.”

Goody Goody in Old Hyde Park Village will also open for inside dining Thursday, as well as the Columbia on Sand Key and the Columbia Cafe at the Tampa Bay History Center.

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Perry said business at Datz is still down 50% from last year, but customers are coming back.

“I think as people feel safe and see the restaurants are safe with masks and sanitation, they’ll come in with their family and friends and enjoy being social again and enjoy hospitality the way it’s meant to be,” Perry said.

Tables are still separated by six feet, but many restaurants have added more outdoor seating, which allows some to seat nearly as many as before the pandemic began.

No one is sure when restaurants will be back to 100%, but Monday’s doubling of indoor dining is another step toward normal for an industry and a workforce battered by the novel coronavirus.