Pinellas County restaurateurs work to keeps businesses open while dining rooms are closed

Despite difficult times, a sign outside the Venus Restaurant on West Bay Drive in Largo shows it has kept its sense of humor.

It's an overwhelming time for local restaurateurs as owners grapple with keeping customers and workers safe — and keeping the doors open at the same time.

"If you have a brick and mortar, you are going to suffer," said Keegan's Seafood Grille co-owner and chef John Schonowski. "The whole business has completely changed."

In an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19, Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order March 20 that said licensed restaurants and food establishments had to suspend on-premises food consumption, but allowed take-out and delivery.

For many local restaurant owners, their entire business model has had to be adapted to meet these new requirements.

"Right now, we have to gone to a voluntary employee practice," Schonowski said of the Indian Rocks Beach staple. "We're running on a skeleton crew, but trying to keep as many working as possible. A lot of these people work week-to-week."

Allen Jernigan, marketing manager for E & E Stakeout and Guppies on the Beach, said it seemed as if everything changed in the blink of an eye.

"Everything is changing and we just have to focus on what we do best," he said.

Both Jernigan and Schonowski said their restaurants have undergone a heavy cleaning and sanitizing, and will continue to do so moving forward.

"We spent all week cleaning everything you could possibly clean," Jernigan said.

All three restaurants are now offering a limited pick-up menu, urging customers to call ahead to place orders, which will be handed off at curbside.

Schonowski said he has struggled with customers who refuse to leave the property after picking up their food, electing to eat on outside benches and seats.

"We could be shut down because of that," Schonowski said. "You don't have to go home, but you can't stay here, you know?"

Jernigan said morale is "as upbeat as possible right now," as his employees work to keep food on the table — both at the restaurant and at home.

In the midst of all the uncertainty, it's still important to think of others, Jernigan said. Both Guppies and E & E are now offering a 50% discount to all healthcare workers and for every $100 spent on gift cards, $20 will be donated to the Salvation Army, Jernigan said.

"We all live here, we breathe here," Jernigan said. "Our philosophy is to take care of the people who have taken care of us all these years."