“I was expecting a little bit more traffic,” said Giovanni Moriello, co-owner of Palace Pizza. “A lot of people don't know if they can go out yet, they don't have a clear idea of what's going on.”
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LAKELAND — Their doors are propped open, the tables are set far apart. Lakeland's small businesses are making every effort to make customers feel safe eating and shopping downtown.
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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis allowed retail shops and restaurants to reopen Monday at 25% of capacity under phase 1 of the state's coronavirus recovery. Downtown parking spaces were easy to find and sidewalks remained largely empty by midday Tuesday.
Giovanni Moriello, co-owner of Palace Pizza, has posted signs and taped out a pathway along the floor of the pizzeria for customers to follow. On-site dining is slow to return.
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“I was expecting a little bit more traffic,” he said. “A lot of people don't know if they can go out yet, they don't have a clear idea of what's going on.”
Moriello said many came in looking for take-out Monday, then saw the blue masking tape denoting six feet for social distancing with space for each table boxed out.
“They see that they can safely come in, take off their mask, sit down and relax,” he said.
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Lakeland business owners are taking every reasonable precaution to put customers at ease amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Palace Pizza has two full-time staff members designated to sanitize highly touched items, from menus and door handles to tables, Moriello said.
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Down the block at Frescos, servers carry bottles of Purell in their aprons, prominently mounted on their hips. Tina Calhoon, the restaurant's owner, said staff have been instructed to disinfect their hands after each contact.
Abby Starkey, owner of the Chop Shop, has pushed tables aside and made it full service to limit customers' social contact. Starkey said she's also redone the outdoor patio with new seat cushions and lighting, with more upgrades in the works.
“We've decided to run into this thing rather than run away,” she said. “We're going to take it to the next level.”
Tables and chairs have been removed from the floor of Nineteen61, where managing partner Lindsey Crowley said the restaurant's seating has been reduced from 150 to roughly 50.
“The guideline is for tables to be six feet apart,” he said. “I personally measured every single table in the dining room as we want to be responsible to our guests.”
Doors of many retail shops along North Kentucky were propped open, allowing customers to enter without making hand contact. Heidi Campbell, co-owner of Stationery Loft, offered a patron a squirt of hand sanitizer for the road after a purchase on the store's the contactless purchase system.
“It's all about reducing the chance of contamination,” she said.
Campbell said she divided her store's total interior space by 36 -- to give each shopper a 6-foot-by-6-foot personal space. It gives the store a maximum capacity of six individuals.
“I would have no hesitation in stopping someone at the door and politely asking them to wait until someone leaves to enter,' she said.
The foodies who have returned downtown are the regulars.Tim Calhoon, newly retired owner turned employee of Frescos, stepped onto South Kentucky to enthusiastically greet and catch up with a young couple eating brunch on Tuesday.
The phone at Nineteen61 was ringing almost nonstop in Crowley's hand Tuesday afternoon. He said the restaurant has been flooded by calls of regulars hoping to dine in.
“We've always lived on reservations,” Crowley said. “We want to take reservations. But not being at full capacity, we also don't want to mislead the community about what we have available.”
Nineteen61 has been fortunate, according to Crowley, as it's held onto approximately 30% of its regular business on take-out orders thanks to an extensive social media campaign.
Tina Calhoon said Frescos will keep its newly launched dinner to-go menu, including family meals, where chicken pot pies have proved a hit. Calhoon said she planned to roll it out five years ago, and the COVID-19 shutdown gave her the perfect opportunity to implement it.
Restaurant owners largely agree: Until indoor dining sees a boost, to-go is here to stay.
“No matter what, we are not coming back from this at 100%, even when we can come back at 100%,” Tina Calhoon said. “You have a society that is still scared. Those who want to go out will; those who are hesitant will be hesitant. How long will it take to return to a sense of normal?”
Moriello said Palace Pizza would be happy to take part in a proposed concept of street dining that's being tossed around by city commissioners and the Lakeland Downtown Development Agency.
“Dining on the street on Kentucky Avenue would be cool, different and fun,” he said. “In Europe, there's always dining in the streets. We shut them down and you dine at night.”
Next door at the Chop Shop, Starkey was less than enthusiastic about street dining.
“There's not enough staff and people to adequately monitor safety and sanitation,” she said. “I think it's too soon.”
Starkey said she's hoping to see restaurants given permission to reopen sooner rather than later. Cinco de Mayo, a Mexican holiday on Tuesday, normally would have meant big business for the Chop Shop. There was no party planned this year.
“Who would have predicted this,” Starkey said. “Nobody.”
Starkey said the key to the business' survival has been making sure her restaurant had an emergency fund. To date, she has not been able to secure any federal grants or loans.
Others are hoping Mother's Day will draw customers. Lakeland's downtown restaurant and shops lost more than a month of sales during what is typically their busiest season.
“We are trying to make the most of it and the most money we can because in a typical season Mother's Day is our last hurrah,” Calhoon said.
Sara-Megan Walsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 863-802-7545.