Businesses Mindful, Cautious As Panhandle Reopens
The Shark Gym owners, Suzy and Cozmo Digiano, remember the exact moment gyms were closed in Florida.
“March 20, 1:40 p.m.,” said Suzy.
It was a harsh reality for the small business which opened in 2018. Until gyms reopened statewide on May 18, the Digianos were trying to stay positive while handling an “influx of cancellations.”
“We held our breaths for a little while,” said Suzy. “We knew people were being affected (by the pandemic). We just leaned further into our faith.”
As the Navarre gym reopened, they saw regulars eager to come back. Thursday morning, about a dozen people were working out, spaced apart, while staff was at the ready with cleaning sprays and towels.
It might seem that reopening efforts have put many of us back into our normal routines and habits. But for business owners, reopening doesn’t mean going back to how things were.
Gyms are among the last businesses to reopen as part of Florida’s “full phase one” reopening plan. During the nearly two months of closing, Suzy and Cozmo paid their staff to work on administrative tasks, repaint and clean the gym — whatever tasks they could do while waiting for the governor’s orders. And they developed a safe reopening plan for their members.
“Some people were uneasy (to come back) because, of course, COVID is real,” she said. “But once people saw the procedures in place to keep the facility clean for their safety, I think it eased people’s minds.”
The gym is cleaned every hour by The Shark Gym staff, with cleaning stations set up around the facility so anyone can wipe down equipment for added insurance. Every other treadmill was turned off to create more than the recommended six-foot distance between people. Before the pandemic, a sanitation company would deep clean the gym twice a week, now they’re adding another company for additional cleans. Instead of one staff member working the front desk, they now have two so someone is always available to clean.
One of the biggest changes is the kids’ playroom is closed while they wait for more direction from the state.
“A lot of people use this gym because we have the child waiting area. We want to have it open,” said Cozmo. “We’re not going to make any decisions until someone says this is how it needs to be done.”
For the people that have come back, it’s like a family reunion, Cozmo said.
Tom Turner is a 66-year-old retired Air Force veteran who says the gym isn’t just a place for physical health, but mental health, too.
“Going to the gym is very cathartic, it helps me relax, it really burns off a lot of stress,” he said. “I have friends here that I talk to and I’ve missed them so much in the last six weeks.”
Katie Bosso, owner of Indigeaux Denim Bar & Boutique in downtown Pensacola, said the pandemic was the first time in the 10 years she’s owned her boutique that she had to close the shop. When the state orders began, she immediately worked to get her entire inventory online and offered curbside pickup and even local home delivery to keep the business going, which she has continued even after reopening.
“I think I’ve (attracted) customers who maybe work a 9 to 5 and given them an avenue to shop with us,” she said.
Reopening the doors for customers means being mindful of all of the touch points in her store — including her inventory — which is why her staff is constantly wiping door handles and fitting rooms and even misting clothes with Lysol (which Bosso said is fabric-safe).
“We clean basically after each customer,” she said.
And customers are being as mindful as the staff.
“People are still coming down (and) being mindful,” said Bosso. “I’d say six out of 10 use the sanitizer. When children come in, parents tell them not to touch anything. People are watching how close they get to one another.”
Even as the state has allowed for 50% capacity in retail shops and restaurants, Bosso said she will continue to keep the number of customers limited in store to maintain social distancing, which means turning customers away and having them wait.
“If you walk in and we’re at capacity, you’re not guaranteed to come in,” she said. “We do offer appointments online. I’ve had to tell people, ‘sorry, you can’t come in,’ and some people wait and others are turned off by it. It’s a very hard pill to swallow, but we want to be respectful to our city and, first and foremost, we want our customers to feel safe when they come in.”
The town of Seaside was one of the first Panhandle communities to take action during the pandemic, closing down its commercial district on March 21. When the announcement was made a few days prior, Bud and Alley’s owner Dave Rauschkolb decided to close that day.
“We were in the middle of spring break, beaches were packed and I was honestly uncomfortable, because COVID-19 was beginning to show up in the area,” he said. “I deeply appreciate the leadership from Seaside. They’ve been very proactive and even held back reopening downtown Seaside until May 29.”
As some restaurants were open for takeout, Rauschkolb waited until May 13 to reopen his Seaside eateries which also include the walk-up spots Bud and Alley’s Pizza Bar and Taco Bar. His Grayton Beach café, Black Bear Bread Co., stayed open offering only to-go and curbside pickup.
Upon reopening, Rauschkolb required employees to wear masks, which he admits not everyone was thrilled about. On top of constantly wiping down the restaurant, tables and bar stools are also spaced more than six feet apart.
“We want to be vigilant and careful,” he said. “We want to protect our employees and our customers.”
Even with the reopening of restaurants, beaches and rentals, Rauschkolb predicts it will be a “long process” before things are ever back to what they were. Which is why he chooses to be positive and proactive.
“It isn’t just our community, the entire world is grappling with it,” he said. “I try to find those silver linings — like being able to be home and parent. The more positive you are, the more you prevail.”