Hospitality and COVID-19: How Marco eateries, hotels are faring during the pandemic

How Marco eateries, hotels are faring during the pandemic

Lance Shearer

The pandemic has had a life-altering on every person and every business – perhaps none more so than hotels and restaurants. Those on Marco Island were forced to abruptly shut down for six weeks in the height of the busy tourist season. Since they reopened, the dining establishments are faced with strict new mandates on health precautions, sanitizing and severely limited in the number of patrons they can accommodate.

Even with safeguards in place, restaurants are still a focus of consumer worries about what is safe for them, with many simply boycotting eating out across the board.

So how are Marco Island’s restaurants faring in the summer of COVID-19? For many, better than you might expect.

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For starters, expectations are generally much lower in the dog days of summer, traditionally the slowest time of the year, even in a normal year.

“We can’t complain – really, business is great,” said Joe Carvelli, general manager of Marco Prime, and a partner in the Carvelli Restaurant Group, which owns three additional restaurants on Marco Island. Like Marco Prime, the Oyster Society and Ristorante DaVinci are in the Marco Walk Plaza, while the Snook Inn anchors the waterfront on the island’s northeast corner.

“With everything up north shut down, a lot of people are coming from there. And on the weekends, we get a lot of people coming over from the east coast. We have more customers now than last summer,” said Carvelli. “We’re getting reservations throughout the night,” including later than usual for early-to-bed Marco Island. “We’re seeing a nice little rush from 9 to 9:30 when people come off the beach.”

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Well, said Laura Owen, general manager of CJ’s on the Bay, the waterfront eatery with the outside bar at the Esplanade, “the last couple of months haven’t been horrible. “We’ve seen an uptick of folks visiting from the east coast” – and in a very informal survey on Tuesday, two out of two family groups lunching outside at the restaurant were from the other side of Florida.

“At an educated guess, we’re almost even, maybe a little down from last year,” she said. Extensive outside dining space has been a big plus for CJ’s, said Owen, making up for a location that doesn’t lend itself to takeout service.

“You can’t just run in and grab your food here,” although the restaurant will accommodate patrons with curbside pickup, she said. “Some places, like Ciao Bella, Su’s Garden and Kretch’s, are really set up for takeout.”

Another longtime island eatery set up for takeout, and doing major business that way, is Joey’s Pizza on Collier Blvd. “We were built for carryout and delivery – that’s our niche,” said Joe Oliverio, who also co-owns Doreen’s Cup of Joe next door.

“We’re pretty much even with last year – except for those eight weeks this spring we’ll never make up – that killed us.” In addition to the to-go business, said Oliverio, “we have big outdoor seating areas,” which are probably used more on balmy winter evenings in a typical year, but are getting a lot more summer usage than normal this year.

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While pizza is the perennial number-one dish at Joey’s, Oliverio confessed to a personal favorite he loves at Doreen’s Cup of Joe, which he said is guaranteed to chase away the blues. “You got to try the crunchy cannoli-stuffed French toast, covered with genuine Vermont syrup. Taste that, and it makes everything go away.”

The Lakeside Eatery on Marco Lake Drive is far from a longtime eatery, going through its first summer on the island, although it has garnered positive reviews and steady business.

“We opened in November, and had to close in March,” said partner Nancy Clark. “We reopened in July, and we’re seeing lots of returning customers – more business every day.”

The restaurant’s slogan is “Trendy food with a healthy twist,” but like Joey, they acknowledge the need for some out-and-out comfort food now and then. One top seller, said Clark, is their barbecue brisket with mac and cheese in a wrap. “Every so often, you need something decadent.”

With their hours from 10:30 to 3, Monday through Friday, Lakeside Eatery is a lunch specialist, and Clark said they have numerous businesses on Marco taking advantage of their free delivery anywhere on the island.

Hotels have maybe been hit even harder than restaurants, as outright travel bans, and quarantines have joined with personal fear of traveling to cut into the hospitality business. Nevertheless, said Amanda Cox, director of sales and marketing for the island’s JW Marriott, “we are hanging right in there. We’re much more fortunate than many,” with ample facilities that allow plenty of space for social distancing, and an occupancy rate that gives each guest more room. The hotel has been averaging about 40 percent, down from the 70-75 percent occupancy that would be typical for the summer months. In addition, the hotel “has not been welcoming non-overnight guests to the hotel, further opening up space for their patrons.

Most of the business groups that had to drop plans for visits this year, she said, postponed rather than cancelled, “so we’re seeing a lot of confidence in the future.” The hotel’s ace in the hole, said Cox, is “the big beautiful beach – the ultimate in natural social distancing. We have each family or group at least 20 feet apart.”

The restaurant and hotel managers we spoke with emphasized the serious lengths they are going to for maximum safety for their customers and staff. They are separating tables, limiting indoor customer loads, offering disposable or virtual menus, taking staff temperatures and insisting they wear masks, wiping down surfaces after each party, allowing time off and paying for tests for employees who have troubling symptoms. A couple said they had had staff test positive for COVID-19 but handled the situation without any spread of the virus. To keep this cautious reopening going, safety and the perception of being in a clean, careful environment are key.

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“We take our cue from the customers,” said Laura Owen. “We want everyone to feel safe.”