“Anytime we think we’re about to take a step forward and think there’s even a possibility that we might look back and say ‘oh that was a little too quick’ — we’re going to pump the brakes on it,” Warren Oakes, co-owner of Boca Fiesta in downtown Gainesville, said.
Many small business owners in Gainesville are facing similar decisions as businesses are allowed to reopen according to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Plan for Florida’s Recovery. Since locally owned businesses do not have oversight from parent companies, decisions regarding how business will run during the pandemic falls to the individual owners.
For the owner of Ichiban Sushi, the decision to reopen came immediately after Gov. DeSantis announced businesses were free to do so, according to general manager Lauren Fender. Ichiban Sushi is currently operating its indoor dining room at 50% capacity, which is about 50 people.
Boca Fiesta took a more cautious approach to reopening. Oakes and his business partner, Jacob Ihde, initially set tables up outside for customers to wait for orders to be ready and to eat their to-go orders there if they choose. But this used unnecessary packaging and caused logistical issues, such as customers who wanted to stay and have a couple rounds of margaritas. They ultimately decided to offer table service to this outdoor seating.
“There were certain things that just were a little more awkward for service,” Oakes said.
Luckily, all the focus could be placed on reopening dining areas and not on kickstarting the kitchens, since both Ichiban Sushi and Boca Fiesta had still offered to-go and delivery options during the closures.
“We have a hardcore base of regulars, so most of them were still ordering to-go,” Fender said.
Business has seemed to pick up for both restaurants since reopening their dining areas, though. Fender attributes increased revenues to customers purchasing more in-house than they would have on delivery orders, namely alcohol. The social element of Boca Fiesta, which has always been a gathering place for locals, is what Oakes attributes increased business to.
In addition to restaurants, some local salons and gyms are also reopening.
Avant Garde Salon was encouraged to reopen after receiving a Paycheck Protection Program loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration, according to owner Robert Barron. The loan’s eight-week use period, combined with the salon staff’s urge to return to work, resulted in reopening on May 18, a week after reopening efforts began.
Avant Garde’s 14 stylists work in two different teams to ensure social distancing requirements are met, Barron said. Only one guest is allowed per stylist.
Appointments are slightly down from before COVID-19, since a large portion of clients were students, he said. Other clients have expressed that they don’t feel comfortable returning to a salon yet but have been told they have a spot when they’re ready.
The decision to reopen Zen Fitness fell to the employees, according to owner Carly Asse. The studio closed before the state mandated closures, which put trainers and Asse in a tough spot.
“It was stressful because everyone doesn’t know how they’re going to pay their bills, everyone doesn’t know when we’re going to reopen again, or what really the future is holding,” Asse said. “It was difficult for everyone.”
Virtual and outdoor training was offered, although it was a very small fraction of their business prior to closure, according to Asse.
After discussing with the seven trainers employed at Zen Fitness, they made the decision to reopen with extra precautions. It is operating with about 25% of its normal number of clients as of May 26, about a fifth of whom are new clients, according to Asse.
Precautions include sterilizing everything once it has been used and allowing only one client and trainer in a room at a time.
At Boca Fiesta, Oakes began by checking in on his employees to ensure they were all healthy before returning to work. He said employees had to answer a checklist of questions such as if they had recently traveled, been in large groups or showed any symptoms.
All employees at both Ichiban and Boca Fiesta are required to wear masks, both in the kitchen and the dining areas, and must wear gloves whenever handling food. Extra care is also being taken in sanitizing anything that might be passed back and forth between customers and employees.
The laminated menus at Ichiban are separated into a dirty pile and a clean pile, which are located at almost opposite sides of the restaurant, according to Fender. Once a customer is done with a menu it goes into the dirty pile where it is wiped down and then reentered into the clean rotation.
Any client who enters Avant Garde must have an appointment, wear a mask and sanitize their hands prior to entering the building. They are then asked a series of health questions and their temperature is taken.
Stylists are using every other chair in the salon to ensure social distancing. Blocks of 15 minutes are added onto each appointment to allow stylists extra time to clean between clients. Stylists also use this time to step outside to take their masks off and have a break before their next appointment.
Despite setbacks faced during COVID-19 shutdowns, small business owners are already looking towards the future.
Logistics of how to bring back trivia and karaoke nights to Boca Fiesta are already being worked on, according to Oakes. He said he and Ihde were even trying to figure out how a dance night might work.
“We really can’t wait to be a hub of the social scene here,” Oakes said.
Regarding how the community is supporting locally owned businesses in Gainesville amid closures, Oakes said, “We’re feeling the love. Look out for all the other independent businesses in town and do what you can to support them.”