Delray Beach’s East Atlantic Avenue was a ghost town late Thursday night as diners and drinkers slumped away from the typically bustling thoroughfare when Palm Beach County’s new 11 p.m. restaurant curfew went into effect.
County officials mandated the early closure this week to halt late-night gatherings at restaurants that have turned into party scenes with the potential to contribute to a recent spike in coronavirus hospitalizations and COVID-19 deaths.
Bars in Florida have been closed, but restaurants with bars and more than half their sales in food are allowed to remain open. The quandary for city officials: As the night marches on and guests stop ordering food, does it become a bar posing as a restaurant?
Among the most popular spots on Atlantic Avenue are the Tin Roof and Johnnie Brown’s, two indoor-outdoor restaurants that for years have attracted standing-room crowds with late nights of live music and drinks. Each serves food — Tin Roof has an excellent burger — but it’s an afterthought for their hard-partying crowds.
“We’re not Elisabetta’s,” a Tin Roof bartender said of the popular restaurant a few doors away. “We are a place to go after dinner. We know our role.”
On the avenue, where masked pedestrians are few, reviews of the new curfew were mixed, with restaurant managers striking a cooperative tone, their customers less so. Most diners and drinkers seemed unaware the new rule existed.
Longtime Delray Beach resident Rich Shullman, 77, called the 11 p.m. deadline “ridiculous.”
“The people who are out here at 11 are willing to take the risk of getting sick to be out here at 11,” Shullman said, his mask dangling under his chin on the sidewalk outside Johnnie Brown’s. “Live your life. These politicians are taking away our lives.”
Next to him, 20-something Danielle Jamison, also unmasked, said moving up Johnnie Brown’s 2 a.m. closing time seemed arbitrary and ineffective.
“If it’s going to be open at all, what’s the point of closing at 11? What’s the point of, what, three hours? I don’t know how much that’s going to help,” she said.
Earlier on Thursday, the state Department of Health reported a daily record 156 deaths from COVID-19, which has claimed the lives of more than 4,900 Floridians, half of them in Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties. On Friday, Palm Beach County reported 656 new cases, raising the total to 24,361. Four additional deaths brought the county toll to 656.
Palm Beach County Administrator Verdenia Baker’s order prohibits restaurants and bars from selling alcohol and food on premises from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. Pickup, takeout and delivery can continue. Violations carry a $500 fine, which Baker is working to increase.
Broward County officials have mandated that restaurants stop serving at 10 p.m., while Miami-Dade County has banned on-premises dining altogether. On Friday, Broward County joined Miami-Dade in enacting a nightly curfew from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m.
How will the new 11 p.m. rule affect your late-night experience at Palm Beach County restaurants this weekend? At Johnnie Brown’s, where Delray Beach police officers watched from across the street, customers had their drinks dumped out shortly before 11. Other spots took a more leisurely approach.
“As far as I’m aware, and has been communicated to me, it’s not a doors-locked situation. It’s just the stoppage of sales, so everyone has to be in the process of check paying. We cannot continue to serve food or drink at that time,” said Tara Puzek, beverage manager at Elisabetta’s Ristorante.
Elisabetta’s has been gradually adjusting its hours since the beginning of the pandemic, Puzek said. The restaurant has been closing at 10 p.m. and the bar, which normally would be open until 1 or 2 a.m. on weekends, has been closing at midnight in recent weeks.
“We’re counting our blessings. We’re happy to be here, at all, employing people, being open, creating experiences for people and giving them a little bit of a refuge,” she said. “We’re just going to do what we need to do to get through this difficult, uncharted time.”
Nearby, the Tin Roof, a restaurant better known for live country and rock performances on its patio stage, has been famous for lines out front and a late-night party scene. Its pre-COVID closing time of 2 a.m. nightly was adjusted to midnight on weekdays and 1 a.m. on weekends after the Tin Roof reopened.
On Thursday at around 10:40 p.m., customers who had filled about a dozen tables spaced around the venue began trickling out as general manager Christina Godbout monitored a roped-off entrance. Her goal was to get everyone out by 10:45.
“We’re blessed to be open. I’m very optimistic about it. I moved here from Nashville, and Nashville’s closed down,” she said. “I’m very lucky that my staff gets to still work. And if 11 o’clock is our curfew, 11 o’clock is our curfew. We’ll follow the rules and go from there.”
By 11:30 p.m. on Thursday, Atlantic Avenue was dark — except for the beacon of cheesesteak that is Big Al’s Steaks. Takeout and delivery business has remained steady at the iconic wee-hours food counter, but even Big Al’s has been affected by the new rules, manager Steve Adams said.
“With the bars closing down the street, we don’t get the 2 a.m. drunk rush anymore,” he said.
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