‘I feel beaten down.’ Miami-Dade restaurants face second coronavirus shutdown

Jaime E. Love

Just as Michael Beltran was planning to reopen one of his restaurants, the county ordered it again to close.

At 11:12 a.m. Monday, the exact time chef Beltran’s public relations firm sent out a press release announcing the rebranding of his Coconut Grove restaurant The Taurus, the county mayor’s office sent out an email announcing Carlos Gimenez’s decision to close dining rooms again at all restaurants starting Wednesday.

“I’m a fiery, feisty fighter, but right now I feel beaten down,” Beltran said. “I feel like my soul has been sucked out of my body.”

The county mayor rolled back his “New Normal” reopening plan, Monday, announcing he intends to sign an emergency order to again close restaurant dining rooms, as well as gyms, ballrooms and short-term vacation rentals. The order would go into effect July 8.

Yet late Monday night, after speaking with several Miami restaurant owners via Zoom, Gimenez tweeted that his emergency order would allow outdoor dining, for parties of four or less, which experts have said is safer than inside seating.

Restaurants reopened under Miami-Dade county’s plan on May 18, though many cities, such as Miami and Miami Beach, banded together to delay reopening until May 27, saying it was too soon to get back to normal. Owners complained the county’s plan put the onus on restaurant owners to overnight become public health officials.

“I’m not a doctor. I’m not a scientist. They tell me the things I need to do to keep people safe and I do them,” Beltran said. “To expect restaurant owners to be public health experts in naïve.”

That governments decided to close restaurants without sharing data that showed these businesses were the source of recent coronavirus spikes is a failure of leadership, said Nick Sharp, owner of the Coral Gables’ Threefold Cafe.

“Where’s the data? Where’s the contact tracing to restaurants?” Sharp asked. “Where’s the data linking it to restaurants? Is there any?”

Sharp sent a note to hundreds of restaurant owners Monday afternoon, inviting them to an outdoor meeting outside of his restaurant at 141 Giralda Ave. to plan a unified response to the new order. More than 30 restaurant owners and staff, from venues in Kendall to the Upper East Side, arrived to the impromptu meeting and planned to send a letter to the mayor, demanding an explanation to justify the sudden closings.

Several owners present said they intend to defy the order and remaining open. One spoke to an attorney about filing an injunction to stop the order.

“They’re not showing us statistics or a plan,” said Fiorella Blanco, owner of downtown’s Fratelli Milano. “We are an industry. We are not just individual restaurants…. We have to make our voices heard to the politicians, the officials and to the public in general to show them that we are doing the right things.”

In dozens of social media posts and group messages to one another, restaurant owners blamed the county for creating a “New Normal” plan that did not involve tight enforcement — and that they said was inconsistent.

“We’ve been following the plan. Is the plan wrong? Either the plan was wrong or widespread people were not following the plan and there was no enforcement. Either way, the county is responsible,” Sharp said.

Rule breakers were not punished, several restaurant owners complained. They blamed those businesses looking to make money in the short term, by packing dining rooms, not following social distancing rules and encouraging large gatherings at the cost of this potential rollback.

“These people should pay the price, much more than a $500 fine,” Beltran said.

Miami Mayor Francis Suarez publicly apologized for his visit to the Design District restaurant Swan and posing for pictures without a mask. Social media videos showed partygoers not social distancing, and Miami police closed down the restaurant a day later.

Diners started policing rule breakers on social media when local municipalities lagged behind.

“We have done everything possible to do the right thing. It’s sad many people have to suffer because of the actions of the few,” Beltran said.

Miami police closed down six businesses inside the city limits over the long weekend for violating the curfew, all of them restaurants.

That reopening happened so quickly was one flaw in the county’s plan, restaurant owner Alex Meyer said. He and his partner, Luciana Giangrandi, waited nearly a month after restaurants were allowed to reopen to invite diners back into the dining room of their Little Haiti spot Boia De — only to prepare to close again two weeks later. They kept their 17 employees on payroll throughout their three-month closing but aren’t sure if they will be able to do so again.

“Frustration is the word across the board,” he said.

Many small, independent restaurants tried any number of creative avenues to keep employees on the payroll. Most, even fine-dining restaurants who define themselves on service, quickly pivoted to offering takeout and delivery.

That model — which provided at best half a restaurant’s previous income, anecdotally — proved only to keep most operating at a slight loss, several owners said. But all agreed it is not a long-term solution.

“The goal was not to make money; the goal was not to lose money,” Beltran.

Others, like Threefolds Cafe, turned into grocery stores, selling the ingredients they purchased in bulk directly to consumers as grocery stores tried to keep up with demand. It allowed them to sell the produce that farmers were stuck with — as many had to raze thousands of acres of crops that could not be served in restaurant dining rooms.

Now they face having to lose $35,000 worth of fresh ingredients when they close Wednesday.

“Where do we put that when we close in three days?” Sharp said.

This new closing order feels different than it did in March, when it was followed by a widespread stay-at-home order, Sharp said. Diners ordered takeout and tipped heavily to support businesses they relied on.

“There’s a weariness now,” he said.

Several high-profile restaurants closed voluntarily as cases surged and the numbers of diners flagged.

Restaurants that did not close entirely relied on forgivable federal payment protection loans to pay employees rather than fire or furlough them. But even those programs were flawed early on.

First the fund ran out of money quickly, as several large chains, such as Ruth’s Chris and Shake Shack, were chosen over smaller restaurants to receive loans. Shake Shack publicly acknowledged accepting then giving back a $10 million loan. Owners also complained that the rules meant they had to hire back staff without being able to put them to work in dining rooms, which were still closed.

For many who took advantage of the program, the payments have ended. Some, like Little Havana’s Cafe La Trova, had to layoff employees again. Some restaurants may make the decision to close altogether now.

“Places are going to close like crazy,” Sharp said. “Many, many restaurants will not be able to reopen.”

— Staff writer Joey Flechas contributed to this story.

These Miami restaurants are now permanently closed after the coronavirus pandemic

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