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Vero’s beachside reopens

Photo: Patchington manager Jamie Giesea, left, shows options to Sis Stewart of Vero Beach as she shops on the first day many of the stores reopened in Vero Beach. Patchington was open, but also keeping certain limits to protect customers including only allowing two dressing rooms to be in use at one time. Photo by Brenda Ahearn

As Florida embarked on the first day of the first phase of recovery from the coronavirus shutdown ordered by Gov. Ron DeSantis, it was hardly business as usual along Vero Beach’s Ocean Drive.

But it wasn’t supposed to be.

“We know we’re not going to hit a home run today,” Mulligan’s Beach House owner George Hart said, adding that the restaurant was providing but discouraging indoor dining. “We just wanted to get our toes back in the sand.”

He wasn’t alone.

There was an upbeat mood all along Ocean Drive as customers returned to shops they have not been able to visit in recent weeks.

“It’s like the first day of school,” Veranda owner Cathy Padgett said. “We’re all so excited to be open again. I think everybody on the street is anxious to be back.”

Some salesclerks and shoppers wore masks, many didn’t. Several shops provided hand sanitizer, gloves and masks for customers that wanted them.

All the shops were conscientious about limiting the number of customers in the store at any given time, and several stores left doors open, or at least ajar, so customers didn’t need to touch door handles.

“We got a lot of our spring inventory in that no one has seen, so we’re excited for our customers,” said Barbara Domico of women’s fashion shop Cooper & Co. “We are scheduling for alterations and staggering them one an hour. We’re hoping people come in for a little ‘virus therapy.’”

Many of the shop owners got creative during the shutdown, offering visits by appointment, and utilizing social media to promote products and make sales. Some stores, such as Lyra, provided streaming platforms that allowed customers to shop virtually.

But most shops suffered revenue losses they don’t expect to recover.

“We missed our six busiest weeks of the year,” Beach Shop owner Martin Bireley said. “We missed our Christmas. If you went to Macy’s on 34th Street in New York a week before Thanksgiving and said, ‘We’re going to shut you down for six weeks’ – that’s what this did to us.

“As far as the numbers go, we won’t get that back,” he added. “It doesn’t matter how good a summer is, that’s how big those six weeks are.”

At the same time, Bireley said he was encouraged. “People are getting out and feeling good. I’m very optimistic about the summer because I think people want to feel normal again – just to be able to enjoy a beautiful day like this and shop a little bit.”

Many of the shop owners said their businesses could benefit from seasonal residents who have decided to stay in Vero Beach longer than usual rather than return to their summer homes in the Northeast and Midwest, particularly to areas that have been hard hit by the pandemic.

Petite Shop owner Terry Higdon said she has heard from many seasonal-resident customers who’ve told her they plan to extend their time in Vero.

“Some even through the summer,” she said, “so hopefully that will bring more business in longer.”

“If customers don’t head back north yet it will help to recoup some of the losses,” said Meg Offutt, an owner of Kemps.

“I’m so happy to finally open the doors – and not just for us, but for everybody,” said Gerri Rhodes, owner of GT Rhodes. “We’ve been locked up for 30 days and that’s a long time.”

Ocean Drive hotels, too, were getting ready to reopen and resume service in their restaurants.

According to Costa d’Este Sales Director Amanda Aucoin, The Wave Kitchen & Bar and the resort’s Cabana will re-open Friday with a limited capacity.

She said the restaurants will “adhere to all guidelines in place regarding social and physical distancing, enhanced cleaning standards and modified service to ensure the health and safety of our employees and guests.”

Costa d’Este also will reopen its hotel Friday.

The Vero Beach Hotel & Spa also has resumed bookings and again will offer indoor and outdoor dining – though with limited seating capacities in keeping with social-distancing requirements – starting Friday.

“We’re excited about it, especially with Mother’s Day coming,” General Manager Awet Sium said. “We’re looking forward to taking another step toward getting back to normal.”

At restaurants open today, employees wore protective masks and politely urged customers to abide by state-mandated social distancing, which requires tables to be 6 feet apart. Most customers also embraced the distancing requirement, even when standing in line to place their orders.

“Everybody is responsible for policing themselves, and every establishment is responsible for policing its patrons,” said island resident Steve Boyle, a County Commission candidate who stopped for lunch at Casey’s Place. “As long as everyone behaves themselves and practices social distancing, I don’t see any reason to be worried.”

In fact, none of the lunchtime customers interviewed by Vero Beach 32963 expressed any concerns that they were putting their health at risk. But while all said they understood the need for social distancing, few wore masks.

“We haven’t been out since March 17,” said Jim Kaltenbach, a Grand Harbor resident who had lunch at Cravings with his wife and son, Mark, who added, “It feels good to be out and see other people again.”

The owners of the Ocean Grill, Citrus and The Tides – all of which have offered carry-out meals during the shutdown – said they would have their restaurants scrubbed and sanitized before allowing customers to enter, then disinfect tables and chairs again after each seating.

“We’re taking every precaution,” said Leanne Kelleher, The Tides’ owner and chef. “In addition to our servers wearing masks, they’re also going to carry hand sanitizer in their aprons. We’re also going to use disposable paper menus and, for the time being, not put bread on the table.”

Two weeks ago, the Ocean Grill’s Charlie Replogle said he wasn’t sure if people were ready to return to restaurants during a pandemic. But he’s now expecting big crowds for Mother’s Day weekend.

“When the governor said we could open up, even at only 25 percent of capacity, we had phone call after phone call from people wanting to make reservations,” Replogle said. “We can seat about 110 people at one time and still comply with the social-distancing requirements, and we might be full Friday and Saturday nights and on Mother’s Day.”

In nearby Riverside Park, the city tennis complex was open as well, according to recreation director Jim O’Connell.

“We have reopened the tennis courts, but with no organized activities,” O’Connell said. “We want to keep everyone as safe as we can, based on CDC guidelines” and still help people “get out of their houses.”

Riverside Theater remains closed, the rest of its season canceled, and the Art Museum doesn’t plan to reopen until June 1, according to director of marketing and communications Sophie Shanaphy.

“We want to make sure all the procedures are in place,” said Shanaphy. “It is not our approach to rush; we take a more measured approach to make sure we get it right.”

Professional offices – lawyers, stockbrokers and wealth managers – seemed in no hurry to reopen either. Most actually continued operating throughout the shutdown, taking care of clients via phone, Zoom and other means of remote communications, but without clients coming into their offices.

Attorney Todd Fennell, managing partner at Gould Cooksey Fennell on Beachland Boulevard, said “we literally locked the door” when the shutdown began but still had key support staff and some attorneys working in the office to provide a central location for mail and phone calls, while others worked from home.

At Edward Jones on Cardinal Drive, senior branch office administrator Jodee Lillee said business is being carried on with staff in the office and communicating remotely with clients. She said no specific date has been set to reopen the doors and resume “business as usual.”  

Staff writers Stephanie LaBaff and Samantha Rohlfing Baita contributed to this report