Cindy Bevilacqua (left) of Cindy B Goods and Sheryl Eddie of Casserole Gourmets are promoting a Valentine’s Day to-go special outside their shared space. (Rebecca Grinker/WUFT News)

Pandemic Forces Gainesville Businesses To Change Valentine’s Day Plans

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Valentine’s Day has for centuries been a time for love, romance and admiration, but this weekend lovers and loved ones must act differently because of social distancing and plexiglass.

For those Gainesville businesses for which the day of cards, flowers, chocolates, jewelry, dinner dates and lingerie is the second most profitable of the year, after Mother’s Day, it remains to be seen whether customers will leave them heartbroken because of the pandemic.

Cindy Bevilacqua said Cindy B Goods, her café on Northwest Fifth Avenue, is among those local stores and shops that have learned to adapt as singles and couples must stay 6 feet apart.

The café now has a take-out window and Bevilacqua, 63, said her focus is now on web orders and delivery services more so than on dine-in business.

“We had to figure out how to do everything to-go and we had to figure out how to package it correctly,” she said.

In 2019, Cindy B Goods, then just over a year old, merged with Casserole Gourmets, which did not previously have a physical store, to create a café and bakery. Sheryl Eddie, 55, the bakery’s owner, agreed with Bevilacqua that their businesses survived the pandemic in large part thanks to the Gainesville Cares Act and the Alachua County Cares Act grants.

Eddie said business is a third of what it was a year ago. Despite a Valentine’s Day special – a casserole for two to go – sales for the café and bakery will likely fall way below 2020 numbers.

“The biggest difference is that they’re celebrating at home rather than at a restaurant,” Eddie said.

Prem and Diana Jotwani, owners of Prestige Jeweler in Gainesville, were not expecting huge Valentine’s Day sales. “Before, people would spend more on jewelry for Valentine’s than what they do nowadays,” he said. (Rebecca Grinker/WUFT News)

At Prestige Jeweler, on Southwest 91st Street, owners Prem and Diana Jotwani were also not expecting huge Valentine’s Day sales. It’s been that way for several years, even before COVID-19.

“Before, people would spend more on jewelry for Valentine’s than what they do nowadays,” Prem Jotwani, 70, said. “Before, it was busy for the whole week, but now it’s only a couple of days, because now it’s all about candy and flowers.”

The pandemic led the Jotwanis to focus on creating social media advertisements to gain traction.

Still, said Diana Jotwani, 60, there’s no substitute for treating every sale as important, whether it’s Valentine’s Day or a monthslong crisis keeping people from hugging one another.

“We don’t get as many customers as we used to, but I think our regular people have kept us alive,” she said. “We give back to our customers and thank them for their support.”

To be sure, not all businesses expect lower than normal sales this weekend.

Betsy Gardner, who owns The Plant Shoppe Florist on Northwest Eighth Avenue, said the coronavirus changed her business but did not threaten it.

“A florist is one of those businesses that survives pandemics,” Gardner, 46, said. “Even though you don’t necessarily have as big of weddings, there are still weddings. There are still funerals, people still get born, people still have birthdays, people still get sick.”

Other florists may not have had the same luck. Gardner said, however, that her emphasis these days on non-contact deliveries should keep her busy enough for a Valentine’s Day that’s not only on a Sunday, but at a time when far fewer people are traveling or going out to dinner.

“Things like flowers have more of an importance than they’ve had in other years,” said Betsy Gardner, owner of The Plant Shoppe Florist in Gainesville. (Rebecca Grinker/WUFT News)

“Things like flowers have more of an importance than they’ve had in other years,” she said.

Julianne Raymond, membership account executive of the Greater Gainesville Chamber, said she was optimistic that internet sales would help many businesses do well for Valentine’s Day.

“There is suddenly the need to create an online presence, and in the end, it’ll be something that grows their business for years and years to come,” Raymond said.

While businesses have to shift their plans, couples are also reimagining the special occasion.

“My Valentine’s Day tradition is to travel, but obviously that can’t happen this year,” said Jam Fernandez, 22, of Gainesville. “My boyfriend and I will have to get creative for this one.”

Fernandez is a certified nursing assistant who had to take on a second job delivering pizzas to make up for the hours lost since March 2020.

“I usually go to the popular chocolate factories in St. Augustine for Valentine’s Day,” he said, “but now we are choosing to stay local because of everything going on.”

They will enjoy one of those to-go specials from Cindy B Goods and Casserole Gourmets.

“While supporting a small business, we will also be able to spend quality time together at home,” Fernandez said.

Josh Gibson, 45, a senior systems engineer, of Gainesville, is a frequent customer of The Plant Shoppe who appreciates its mask-wearing mandate during the pandemic. And yet whether it’s ordering for his wife on Valentine’s Day or another time, Gibson said: “I also have them deliver the flowers, so it’s even safer. Plus, I get to support small businesses.”

About Rebecca Grinker

Rebecca is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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