‘We just can’t catch a break’: A perfect storm at South Florida restaurants as omicron surges

South Florida Sun Sentinel

Dec 29, 2021 1:17 PM

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A server wearing a mask, answers questions at Casa D'Angelo, in Boca Raton, Tuesday, December 28, 2021. As omicron cases began to skyrocket in Florida, Casa D'Angelo began enforcing mask mandates again for its staff, and added back more outdoor seating.

A server wearing a mask, answers questions at Casa D’Angelo, in Boca Raton, Tuesday, December 28, 2021. As omicron cases began to skyrocket in Florida, Casa D’Angelo began enforcing mask mandates again for its staff, and added back more outdoor seating. (Michael Laughlin/Sun Sentinel)

A stampede of hungry holiday diners, a raging omicron variant and fewer staff to contain the tide. A perfect storm is mounting at South Florida restaurants at the most critical time on the calendar.

For Angelo Abbenante, owner of Lynora’s Italian restaurant in Boca Raton, Christmas weekend brought a recipe for holiday chaos. Only four servers showed up to work the booked-solid dining room. A party of 18 canceled last-minute at his Jupiter location.

When a handful of employees called in sick with a combination of the flu and COVID-19, Abbenante imposed mask mandates for workers again. He’s now too short-staffed to keep Lynora’s Boca and Jupiter locations open for lunch this week.

“We just don’t have enough people,” Abbenante says. “The past week has had insane levels of COVID cases in the industry, and we can’t afford to lose the employees we do have. We’re doing our best to keep everyone safe.”

Wary of losing the workers they have left, restaurants are again in the uncomfortable position of playing mask police for staff. They’re cutting back operating hours – and, like Lynora’s, even closing certain days of the week – thanks to ailing employees and persistent staff shortages. They are also limiting New Year’s Eve reservations, wary of overcrowding the guests and overworking their staff.

Still, diners accustomed to a specific level of service and quality, sometimes don’t get why waits are long when tables are open.

A family is served an outdoor meal at Casa D'Angelo, in Boca Raton, Tuesday, December 28, 2021. As omicron cases began to skyrocket in Florida, Casa D'Angelo began enforcing mask mandates again for its staff, and expanded outdoor seating.

A family is served an outdoor meal at Casa D’Angelo, in Boca Raton, Tuesday, December 28, 2021. As omicron cases began to skyrocket in Florida, Casa D’Angelo began enforcing mask mandates again for its staff, and expanded outdoor seating. (Michael Laughlin/Sun Sentinel)

“We just can’t catch a break,” he says. “I’ve had grown men and women just berate my managers, my 15-year-old hostesses, on top of the staff shortages. People right now don’t care. They see an open table and they wonder why there’s a wait. We’re trying to give the kitchen a break.”

Restaurateur Angelo Elia made workers at his eight South Florida restaurants wear masks again, spooked as he watched Florida’s daily COVID-19 cases soar last week. He even convinced the city to let him install a white tent on the sidewalk next to Casa D’Angelo in Boca’s Mizner Park, extending his patio by 30 seats.

Elia doesn’t mind the recent rash of New Year’s Eve reservation cancellations at Casa d’Angelo. He won’t accept bookings larger than 10 people per table, while “groups of 15 need to have two to three tables,” he says.

“If anyone canceled right now I won’t rebook it,” Elia says. “After New Year’s I’m going to eliminate 10 tables from my dining rooms. I talked to all my staff and they agree with me. It’s for their safety. If this [omicron variant] keeps growing, it’s going to be a nightmare again. It’s scary.”

Servers mask up as diners enjoy a meal at Casa d'Angelo, one of several South Florida restaurants now mandating masks for employees as the omicron variant surges in South Florida.

Servers mask up as diners enjoy a meal at Casa d’Angelo, one of several South Florida restaurants now mandating masks for employees as the omicron variant surges in South Florida. (Michael Laughlin/Sun Sentinel)

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has barred restaurants from mandating masks except for its workers. Which is why Elia hopes customers feel safer by watching Casa D’Angelo employees lead by example.

“We can’t force them, but they see us wearing the masks, they see us wanting to survive, and they know to do their part,” Elia says.

After two staff called in sick with positive COVID tests in early December, Farmer’s Table in Boca Raton made masks mandatory again, says Sam Bonasso, the healthy-eats kitchen’s operations director. His restaurant is still short bartenders, line cooks and hostesses, and protecting the few staff that remained seemed vital, he says.

“We’re so tight with labor, losing one person or two people can really affect the schedule in a bad way,” Bonasso says. “That’s how low our staffing is right now.”

Bonasso avoided enforcing masks during this summer’s delta variant surge, but witnessing COVID testing sites jammed with people convinced him that omicron was the greater existential threat, he says. For now, Bonasso is limiting New Year’s Eve reservations “because we don’t want to open up the floodgates and give a bad experience” to customers who bristle at waiting for seats.

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About 85 percent of customers now ask for outdoor seating, he says.

“The customers are a little more flexible when we tell them we have nothing outside, only inside,” he says. “Maybe they won’t get their 7:15 p.m. booking, but they don’t mind eating at 5:45 when it’s less busy.”

Yoram Shemesh, a partner at Dune by Laurent Tourondel, says his 200 covered patio seats on prime Fort Lauderdale beachfront means that most customers prefer to dine outside.

His problem, instead, is finding enough workers. Open since Nov. 30, Dune remains closed Sundays and Mondays – and hasn’t yet started brunch service – for lack for a weekend staff, Shemesh says. He mandated and started giving navy blue masks to employees last week ahead of the busy Christmas weekend, and doesn’t intend to stop until the latest viral wave subsides, he says.

“We have all these people traveling from other parts of the country to Florida, and you don’t know who’s infected,” Shemesh says. “If the cases are high, we should be wearing masks.”

A server takes an order at an outdoor table at Casa D'Angelo, in Boca Raton, Tuesday, December 28, 2021.

A server takes an order at an outdoor table at Casa D’Angelo, in Boca Raton, Tuesday, December 28, 2021. (Michael Laughlin/Sun Sentinel)

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