GREEN COVE SPRINGS – As Shelby Douglas handed the ticket to the kitchen, a mother and daughter took their seat at Sweet Sensations Café to wait for their late lunch to be made.
A cellphone alert then made Douglas’ knees buckle.
Gov. Ron DeSantis had just announced he was closing all of the state’s eateries to sit-down customers as a precaution to COVID-19. Until further notice, the only way to leave the cooking to someone else is to have it delivered or take it home from the to-go window. He also waved rules to allow for take-home cocktails.
An industry already decimated by fear, declining sales and a disappearing customer base got what some fear may be a decisive blow to the future to many mom-and-pop restaurants.
At Sweet Sensations, half the tables were closed to make sure all guests were at least six feet from each other. That was a response the DeSantis’ directive on Wednesday that also required all bars and night clubs close their doors.
“We’ve been pushing the option of take outs or we’ll bring it out to your car,” Douglas said. “We’ve tried to be as normal as we can.”
Many were forced to focus on delivery and pick-up days before DeSantis made it official. At one popular restaurant on County Road 200 on Fleming Island, three servers were huddled near the bar with arms crossed – and no customers in the building.
A normal staff of about 10 servers during the dinner hours already had been cut in half. Many from the kitchen also had their hours slashed.
“This has stressed me out,” one server said. “This is the sole income for about 95% of the people who work here. Now we’re only getting a few days and there’s not a lot of people coming in. How are you supposed to pay your rent?”
When the state’s schools closed, many of the servers also faced issues with child care. Another server said her fellow employees are working together to watch each other’s children until the pandemic subsides.
“It’s the unknown that scares me,” another server said. “At first, they told us it would be [gone at] the first of April. Now they’re saying it could be the end of June or July. What are we supposed to do?”
All three servers said the handful of customers that had been coming in were elderly – the demographic that’s supposed to be the most-threaten by the virus.
“We haven’t seen a kid in here in days,” the first server said.
Down the road at V Pizza and Tap Garden, there were only five people at the bar during happy hour. The restaurant was empty.
“It’s not a surprise – we’ve seen a big decline,” server Michael Newman said. “The hard part is you rely on tips. There aren’t any tips when there aren’t any people. But we plan to stay open.”
That was Wednesday. Two days later, the doors were shut.
“We’ve had to make a lot of cuts,” V Pizza kitchen manager Carl Davis said. “There’s certainly more coming.”
Texas Roadhouse quickly adapted by setting up a take home delivery drive-thru at its Blanding Boulevard location.
Business on Sunday was steady, but clearly not to the levels of an open dining room, and it allowed a handful of servers to stay on the job.
Orders were either called in or made in the parking lot. Food then was delivered while the customer waited in the car. The stream of hungry customers was so steady, it required someone to direct traffic in the parking lot.
Douglas said she had to send several of her employees home once business slowed. And like the Fleming Island restaurant, Douglas said her customers also seemed more elderly than usual.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Douglas said.
Neither does anyone else.