TARPON SPRINGS — When Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order April 29 allowing certain businesses, such as restaurants and retail shops, to reopen May 4 using strict social distancing and mass gathering guidelines, most expected the return to “normal” would be a slow process.
A swing through Tarpon Springs the first Monday in May proved those expectations to be true.
Traffic was light both downtown and at the Sponge Docks on the first day restaurants were allowed to serve customers anything other than takeout and non-essential retail shops could welcome customers for the first time in weeks. Some businesses elected not to reopen immediately while others were deal-ing with the new normal — trying to turn a profit while operating under the statewide guidelines that include restaurants and retail stores operating at 25% capacity.
“It’s going to be one of the biggest challenges,” Johnny’s Taphouse and Grill owner Johnny Stamper admitted as he helped manage a lunch crowd that consisted of a few tables outside and one or two in-side his East Tarpon Avenue spot. “They should’ve let us reopen at 50% capacity. Twenty-five percent won’t even remotely pay the bills and cover the payroll and overhead I have. The only reason I’m doing it now is for my employees and for my customers.”
The restrictions have put businesses in the unique position of trying to attract customers, but not too many, while keeping those who do show up a safe distance apart.
“We’re a very strong local bar. People feel more comfortable here,” Johnny’s manager Paul Woody said. “So, it’s changed the dynamic, because large groups can’t sit together, and no one can sit at the bar. But we’re trying to hold true our slogan, ‘where the locals go’ and just be here for them.”
Outside on the patio, downtown resident Michael John Targakis said he was grateful to finally be able to go out and support local businesses. “I live downtown and haven’t been able to go anywhere or have access to anything, so I wanted to come out and show my support for the community,” he said as he sat under the sun with friends Glenn McLeod and Charlie Lasuit.
When asked how the tourism-driven city would adjust to the changes, the renowned Sponge Docks tour guide said, “I think we’ll find a new dynamic. It’s all about being Tarpon Strong. When life gives you lemons, you make grapefruit juice!”
Down at the docks many shops and restaurants were still closed, and the ones that were open weren’t seeing a lot of foot traffic on what’s typically a slow visitor day anyway.
But even a light turnout was a step in the right direction, according to Theodora Bousdoukos, manager of Dmitri’s on the Water.
“It’s been a long road, and we’re just happy to have the opportunity to open back up,” Bousdoukos said as she fielded phone calls and helped seat guests on their waterfront patio.
“It’s a new world, and perceptions have altered a bit since this started. People are more automatically aware of personal space. So, it’s going to be slow and steady. But everyone is thrilled to be out. We’ve been getting a lot of calls and reservations, which is excellent. The faithful have stayed with us. It’s only a few hours in, but we’re beautifully optimistic and plan to take this one day at a time. You gotta walk before you can run!”
A few yards away, Palm Harbor resident Betsy Ferraro strolled the docks with her dog’s leash in one hand and several bags full of food and the Sponge Docks’ famous soaps in the other.
When asked what brought her out to the historic tourist district on the first day the lockdown was lifted, Ferraro said, “I couldn’t wait until they opened up. I’ve been coming to the Sponge Docks for over 40 years, and I wanted to be here the first day they reopened and support these small businesses that have been suffering through this crisis.”
While there was plenty of optimism to be found, others were quick to point out the reality of the situa-tion.
“Yup, it feels more like July or August than May,” a shopkeeper at the Sponge Exchange replied to a patron who commented on the sparse crowd.