FLORIDA KEYS — Though the state and country are experiencing an uptick in coronavirus cases fueled by new variants of the disease, Florida Keys business leaders are reporting that restaurants are faring well, unlike the economic devastation that was experienced early in the pandemic.
The National Restaurant Association released a survey conducted in mid-August that found six in 10 adults have changed their restaurant usage in recent weeks as a result of the Delta variant.
Nine percent canceled existing plans to go to restaurants, and 19% had stopped going out to restaurants altogether. Thirty-seven percent opted for takeout or delivery as a result of the Delta variant.
It also found that 32% of adults said they would be less likely to go to a restaurant with a mask requirement and 25% said they would be more likely to go to a restaurant with a mask requirement, illustrating a tightrope some restaurants have to walk on a politically touchy issue.
Generation Z (those born between 1997 and 2012) and Democrats were more likely to favor pandemic precautions in restaurants while Republicans and Generation X (those born between 1965 and 1980) were more likely to say a mask requirement would make them less likely to go to a restaurant, the study said.
September is generally a slower time in the Keys tourism season when a number of restaurants shut down for vacations and annual maintenance or upgrades. A red-hot tourism summer seems to be finally slowing down somewhat, according to industry leaders. Hotel occupancy rates that were around 90% in the second quarter have begun to loosen, according to the Lodging Association of the Florida Keys and Key West.
Elizabeth Moscynski, president of the Key Largo Chamber of Commerce, said restaurants seem to have weathered challenges posed by the pandemic.
“It’s the slower season so they’re not as busy, but people seem to be going into them,” she said.
Amid the recent COVID surge, some government agencies in the county have asked people to put masks on again when indoors. Moscynski said some restaurants are again requiring masks for customers to come in, except when they’re seated, but she notices loose enforcement of the protocol.
“I have seen people go in without masks and they’re not being asked to leave,” Moscynski said.
Other restaurants are requiring employees to mask up again but leaving it up to guests to decide to wear masks or not.
At the Key Largo chamber’s office, Moscynski recently reinstated the mask requirement, but said that if someone comes in without one, “I am not going to get in a shouting match with them.”
She added that the Keys have one of the highest vaccination rates in the state (77%, according to the Florida Department of Health) and that people view the Keys as a friendly and comfortable place, so they may feel less pressure to keep a mask on at all times.
Robert Goltz, executive vice president of the Key West Chamber of Commerce, said “we haven’t seen any change” in business since the virus began to flare up this summer.
“I think people are just coming down for vacation and relaxation, and we’re just operating as normal,” Goltz said.
He said he has seen some businesses that ask employees to wear masks while on the job, but that “no one is imposing it on travelers.”
Judy Hull, head of the Islamorada Chamber of Commerce, offered a somewhat different assessment for her area. She said that the new COVID surge has been troublesome for some businesses. A few restaurants in the area, she said, were already struggling with staffing and the new surge is putting a strain on them. Some have changed their hours or started closing an extra day a week.
Regarding mask usage, she said “restaurants are a difficult call” and she questions how helpful it is if guests only wear a mask when entering and leaving the building.
The chamber offices and visitor center are requiring masks again.
Omar and Nicole Maldonado took over ownership of the S.S. Wreck and Galley Grill on Grassy Key in mid-July, shortly before the state’s case numbers began to swell up again. They said despite the surge in cases, business has been good since they bought the restaurant. Nicole added that customers are welcome whether they are vaccinated or not.
“It’s a health concern for people so we respect what people decide to do on their own,” she said.
The owners have discussed the situation with staff, saying that if anyone feels ill, to stay home and take precautions. They said they are in ongoing discussions on how best to mitigate the virus and conduct business in a pandemic.