East Manatee County businesses vary in whether to operate at full capacity or to require customers to wear masks.
After Florida entered the third and final phase of its reopening plan Sept. 25, it appeared businesses in East County would have room to breathe.
In reality, some business owners still are holding their breath.
An example is Darrin Foil, the general manager at Speaks Clam Bar. Although Manatee County repealed its face mask mandate and Gov. Ron DeSantis' Phase 3 allows restaurants to return to 100% capacity, Foil said neither of those things are practical with the pandemic still affecting the area.
“Throughout the early stages of the pandemic, people became comfortable with our protocols and how we're handling it,” Foil said. “If I increase tables, but I lose guests because they don't feel comfortable coming in, it's not really an increase.”
Foil said he operates at 60% to 70% capacity to keep that comfort level intact. His staff members wear masks and gloves and guests are required to wear masks into the building.
At the bar, customers are served only if they are seated, and one seat is left open between each party. If there are no open seats, guests can wait outside and a cocktail server will attend to them.
In contrast, Petrosino’s Italian Deli & Market doesn't require its customers to wear masks. Owner Kirk Anthony Henry said he also has gone back to 100% capacity. He said it's key in helping his business financially and his customers are comfortable with the changes.
Paris Bistrot owner Jean Cristophe Nebra said his customers aren't comfortable with a full house in his very small restaurant on Lakewood Main Street. He said he receives calls from customers who want to make sure the restaurant has not increased its capacity. He is going to remain at 50% capacity for now.
Some restaurant owners have the space to keep 6 feet between their tables when they operate at what they consider full capacity.
Riviera Mediterranean Grille owner Sharie Kelly said she plans on keeping her tables 6 feet apart even after the pandemic ends.
“I think moving forward, people are going to very much value their personal space,” Riviera Mediterranean owner Sharie Kelly said. “And personally, I have always liked that in a restaurant. I hate to be on top of another table. I want to be relaxing. I want to hear the conversation at my table.”
Like Petrosino's, Kelly doesn’t require guests to wear a mask but she wears one herself.
Among the public, opinions about masks seem to be split. Lakewood Ranch resident Desiree Kramedas said she has no issue following the rules if businesses require guests to wear masks. Lisa Kaitz, a hygienist who lives in Lakewood Ranch, said the same — with a caveat.
"It's absurd you have to wear one when you walk [into a restaurant], but then everyone takes it off after they walk in," Kaitz said.
Lakewood Ranch resident Allison Sneed, however, said she would not patronize a business that requires her to wear a mask.
"I'm not sick," Sneed said. "The sick people should wear a mask or stay home. We need our freedom."
Arts a Blaze Studio on Lakewood Main Street has also increased to 100% capacity, but owner Joann Kavanaugh said the store typically only reaches that figure during the holiday season, and she may adjust at that point if needed. She will, however, continue to limit the number of guests allowed at group events such as birthday parties.
“We've seen people be nervous if it's too busy,” Kavanaugh said. “Or they're calling in advance, ‘Do you have tables open? Is it really crowded?’”
Sharkey’s Cuts for Kids on Lakewood Ranch Boulevard hasn't returned to full staffing levels due to the pandemic, making it easier to limit capacity, according to stylist Ana Aguirre. Customers are stationed at every other seat.
Orangetheory Fitness on Lena Road will continue to limit its classes to about 50% capacity until at the end of October, or later. Manager Mandy Pressley said it’s especially important because members aren’t required to wear masks while exercising.
“For the amount of members that we would have leave, it would not be worth [increasing capacity],” Pressley said.