‘Why are we pretending it’s all over?’ Miami restaurants wrestle with new COVID rules

Carlos Frías
·4 min read

Jimmy Flanigan walked into his family’s packed Flanigan’s Restaurant in Coconut Grove Friday night, three hours after Gov. Ron DeSantis approved 100 percent inside seating, and thought it looked too busy.

A crowd gathered to watch the Miami Heat play an 8:30 p.m. playoff game Sept. 25 on more than a dozen televisions. Patrons were standing shoulder-to-shoulder. The bar was steadily serving drinks.

“It was a little scary walking into a Flanigan’s after six months and seeing it full,” said Flanigan, CEO and president of the South Florida-based chain of 24 sports-bar-style restaurants. “It was too busy. So we backed off to 50 percent.”

New state guidelines for restaurants and bars, released after 4 p.m., and a delay of more than a day before Miami-Dade clarified its own rules to stem the spread of coronavirus, caused confusion across the county among patrons and restaurant owners.

Coronavirus be damned: Miami parties like it’s 2019 again after DeSantis order

“To say it was confusing would be an understatement,” Flanigan said. “It was compounded by the fact that the governor released the hounds without any warning.”

DeSantis moved the state into Phase 3 Sept. 25, ordering that all businesses immediately be allowed to open with at least 50 percent capacity. Restaurants, the order said, would be allowed to open at 100 percent indoor seating capacity. Local government would have to justify to the state any restrictions that kept capacity under 50 percent, DeSantis’ order read.

Not until nearly 11 p.m. the next day did Miami-Dade release its new guidelines to control the spread of coronavirus. Mayor Carlos Gimenez’ order allows at least 50 percent inside dining capacity for restaurants. They may reach up to 100 percent if they can sit tables six feet apart or by using outside spaces.

However, bars are allowed to seat at least 50 percent, even if their inside space does not allow for six feet of social distancing, DeSantis said.

The 30-plus hours between those two orders allowed for scenes not seen in Miami since before the March 16 restaurant shutdowns.

Flanigans, which regularly fills up for sporting events, immediately drew crowds that heard about DeSantis’ rules. Other restaurant owners were calling Jimmy Flanigan for advice, even as he was learning of the rules himself.

Flanigan said he ordered his Miami-Dade restaurants to go back to 50 percent capacity starting Sunday, and he shut down service at the bar.

“If you see a business at full tilt, it’s shocking. You start thinking about the (COVID-19) spread again,” Flanigan said. “That 24-hour period was where all the confusion came in.”

At the other end of the spectrum, Camila Ramos kept her downtown Miami coffee shop and restaurant, All Day, with only outside seating despite the relaxed regulations.

A former microbiology student at the University of Florida, she read the Sept. 11 Centers for Disease Control study that indicated those exposed to coronavirus had been more likely to be dining out.

Listen to today's top stories from the Miami Herald:

Subscribe: Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Amazon Alexa | Google Assistant | More options

Her staff continues to be tested every 10 days as long as Florida still reports 3,000 or more daily coronavirus cases. When that number drops below 2,000 for 10 straight days, Ramos said she will back her testing down to every two weeks and then to zero once Florida shows no more than 1,000 daily cases a day.

“Why are we pretending it’s all over?” Ramos said. “The data shows it’s not over. So we’re not ready to ease up.”

At the three-month old downtown bar Over Under, business was brisker than usual, said owner Brian Griffiths. He said he has been frustrated to continue switching service, seating and enforcement as governments open, close and reopen businesses again. They currently seat about 25 people inside and another 25 outside, where they have built a deck with space for social distancing.

“It puts the pressure on us to be the fun police, and it’s not a position you want to be in, in the hospitality business,” he said.

Flanigan said half of the patrons he was seeing “didn’t have a worry in the world. They don’t have COVID on their minds.” He said he fears moving too quickly to fill up businesses again will lead to another outbreak — and that is bad for public health and his business.

“If our staff starts getting sick, and we have to close down again, what good does it do us?” he said.