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'One Alligator Apart': Pandemic Puts New Business Models On The Menu For Restaurants

Servers go through a shift change at a makeshift hand-washing and sanitizer station outdoors at the Flora-Bama roadhouse in Perdido Key, Fla. Florida allowed restaurants to open this week at limited capacity and with new safety protocols.
Debbie Elliott
Servers go through a shift change at a makeshift hand-washing and sanitizer station outdoors at the Flora-Bama roadhouse in Perdido Key, Fla. Florida allowed restaurants to open this week at limited capacity and with new safety protocols.

As more states begin to ease coronavirus restrictions, restaurants are working through exactly how they will get back to business.

When Florida eased restaurant restrictions this week, the notorious Flora-Bama roadhouse reopened its doors, the sounds of live music drifting with the sea breeze.

This sprawling 11-acre complex on the Gulf of Mexico at the Florida-Alabama state line is known for its local musicians, Gulf oysters and cold beer.

But there are no throngs of people dancing. Indoor bars and poolrooms are closed. Outdoor spaces have been converted to sit-down dining only. A host will seat you at a picnic table that has been set in the sand at least 6 feet away from other tables. Signs are posted throughout showing what physical distancing looks like in a very Florida way: "One alligator apart."

"You know we're trying to do the right thing as a business," says Cameron Price, one of the restaurant's owners. "We have to walk that difficult walk of being the enforcers and at the same time being the people that are trying to help you have a good time."

Having a good time looks a lot different today than it did when the Flora-Bama shut down on March 16. Price says the roadhouse closed a week before stay-at-home orders when it became clear the coronavirus was spreading in the United States.

"We were in the heat of spring break, and we had a thousand, 2,000 people in here at night," he says. "It was like this isn't the responsible thing to do."

During the shutdown, owners and managers planned for how to get back in operation, transforming from a crowded bar to a spread-out restaurant.

It's a conversation now happening at restaurants around the country as more states begin to ease coronavirus restrictions. If dining is allowed to resume, many states are curtailing it to half-capacity or less to maintain social distancing. Industry leaders say it's unclear if smaller operations will be able to make a profit under those conditions.

"We know we're walking into something that we're not sure what it's going to look like," says Naomi Pomeroy, chef and owner of the restaurant Beast in Portland, Ore., an intimate space with communal dining for 26 people.

"I'm pretty sure that nobody's going to be clamoring to sit at a communal table until everyone's vaccinated," Pomeroy says. "So I need at my own restaurant to be able to restructure my whole plan."

Pomeroy is one of the founders of the Independent Restaurant Coalition, a group calling on Congress to pass a $120 billion fund to help restaurants and their laid-off workers. These restaurateurs say the Paycheck Protection Program isn't working for them. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the food and beverage industry lost 417,000 jobs in March — nearly 60% of the nation's job losses.

When and whether customers will return is part of the equation of getting back to business.

Chef Donald Link owns a group of restaurants in New Orleans, including Cochon and Herbsaint. He has dealt with disaster before, coming back after Hurricane Katrina. But this feels different, he says.

"As bad as Katrina was, you knew that one day it would just be over. We'll clean up, we'll rebuild and get back to it," Link says. "You know, this is a lot more unknown."

Right now restaurants are limited to takeout, drive-through or delivery in Louisiana. But Link expects the state to allow dine-in eating to resume in a limited fashion sometime in June. He wonders whether people will be able to afford to eat out and if they'll be anxious about returning to restaurants, or even New Orleans, an early hot spot for infection.

"It's still going to be a long time before we can get the tourists back," Link says. "I don't think anyone's going to be jumping on airplanes in four weeks."

Link's restaurant group has laid off nearly 400 people. He says he has lost 95% of his business. He has kept two small restaurants open for takeout and delivery, and to provide free family meals for his workers every other day.

But even doing takeout in the pandemic has been a challenge. Link says he had to close it down and reconfigure when people started congregating in the restaurant.

His contingency planning for reopening includes going to reservations only in a spread-out dining room so people won't linger while waiting for tables, doing away with the check presenter folios, and removing hot sauces and salt and pepper shakers from the tables.

"I assume we'll be all wearing gloves and masks, which is a bummer," Link says. "There won't be a lot of hugging and handshaking and back-slapping and all that."

His goal is to keep everything sterile, but "I don't want people to feel like they're dining in a hospital room either."

Link says customers and staff will have to adapt to prevent a resurgence of the virus, which he says could cost lives and destroy the restaurant industry.

Destiny McQueen shucks Gulf oysters at the Flora-Bama on her first day back after being out of work since mid-March.
Debbie Elliott / NPR
Destiny McQueen shucks Gulf oysters at the Flora-Bama on her first day back after being out of work since mid-March.

Back at the Flora-Bama, Destiny McQueen is wearing a mask and gloves behind the oyster bar as she shucks raw oysters to order. She's relieved to be back at work after going more than a month without pay.

"I was happy when they called us back to at least come start getting the place cleaned up and stuff," McQueen says. "Then when we found out we were opening, it was great."

Workers are screened for symptoms before starting their shifts. A new hand-washing station and rum-scented hand sanitizer are scattered around the property — all part of the new protocols aimed at keeping workers and customers safe.

Regular customer Tom Denev appears glad to be back, even in the new circumstances.

"I come in and like wow, 'They've got it set up by CDC standards,' " he says. "It's the right thing. Gotta get the businesses going again, but we also have to have safety."

Co-owner Price says the new safety protocols seemed to hold on the Flora-Bama's first day back. But as the weekend nears, he says he expects larger crowds and a challenge keeping people vigilant.

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NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.
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