Fearless or foolhardy? Clematis Street, Atlantic Avenue bars and restaurants refill to the brim as pre-COVID crowds venture back into town

Tony Doris
Palm Beach Post
People dine at Lynora's on Clematis Street in downtown West Palm Beach on Saturday, March 20. State and local officials have been reluctant to reimpose lockdowns or restrictions that might jeopardize businesses. Instead, they are relying heavily on personal responsibility in the hopes that individuals will, collectively, make the right decisions to curb the virus's spread — to follow rules for mask-wearing and social distancing.

WEST PALM BEACH — Jon Scott and Colleen Hickey of West Palm Beach sat inside at the bar at Batch New Southern and Tap last weekend, waiting for an outdoor table to free up.

As they chatted, they let their masks slide down their necks, more like scarves. They'd come to the Clematis Street establishment relatively early, around 7:30 p.m., they explained, figuring it would be less crowded and safer.

“We listen to the science,” Scott said. “[But] there’s a point where we have to ease back into normal life. You start making justifications.”

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Even after a year of this plague, well over 2,000 people are still catching COVID-19 each week in Palm Beach County. More than 128,000 cases have been reported so far, with no end in sight. And more than 2,600 have died.

But from Delray Beach to West Palm Beach, the living have grown impatient. Bars and restaurants brim with patrons who spill out onto the sidewalks, standing and sitting shoulder-to-shoulder, masks askew or off altogether.

During a recent drive around municipalities, County Administrator Verdenia Baker was alarmed at what she saw.

“It’s frightening what’s happening on Atlantic Avenue (in Delray Beach). It’s frightening what’s happening on Clematis Street (in West Palm Beach),” she said of the crowds of unmasked people eating, drinking and closely socializing at popular entertainment areas.

On Tuesday, County Department of Heath Director Dr. Alina Alonso told county commissioners people should not let their guards down.

“I encourage all our businesses and all of our population to realize we are not out of the woods yet,” she said. “The feeling now is you get one of two of your vaccines and you feel like superman I do feel like going downtown and to Clematis but you have to hold yourself back, you have to realize that you only have 95% coverage and you can still get the virus.”

Restaurant and bar owners confirm the crowds have returned.

"We're back to normal. We're thriving. The influx from the Northeast has helped a ton," said Nick Coniglio, owner of E.R. Bradley's Saloon near the West Palm Beach waterfront.

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The past two months have been boom times, he said, adding that Bradley's has the advantage of a lot of open-air seating and the city let it extend that onto the adjacent lawn.

People stroll down East Atlantic Avenue in downtown Delray Beach on Sunday, March 21.

"We've all done a good job in being cautious and making changes to operate," he said of downtown business owners. "It hasn't come without a cost. It's a heavy cost, with people being very sick and some dying but that being said, I can't imagine how much loss there would be if we had no operations for anyone, or minimal operations."

Masks, social distancing not happening downtown

The county mask mandate remains in effect but you wouldn't know it from observing restaurant patrons and pedestrians in downtown Delray Beach either.

The mandate requires that masks be worn inside businesses and establishments like restaurants, shops and hotels. If you're getting food from a drive-thru or eating at a restaurant, you don't need one. But masks must be worn in public where social distancing cannot be possible, like outdoor areas or common spaces in private communities. And they are required on Palm Tran and inside county and municipal buildings.

An Atlantic Avenue bar in downtown Delray Beach with patrons not socially distanced and not wearing masks.

However, the vast majority of people strolling or dining on Atlantic Avenue on a recent Saturday night were maskless. The few that wore masks wore them improperly, well below their noses. Others hung them off their ears or held them in their hands.

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The foot traffic was so strong it wasn't possible to socially distance. And at some bars, there was no effort to space out patrons.

One recently vaccinated couple who wore masks on East Atlantic Avenue said they were disappointed at what they saw.  

"We did not know what to expect," they said, asking not to be identified. "We have been very careful and this was our first dinner in more than a year. Even with being fully vaccinated, my guess is that we will wait a while before we come back to Delray. 

"The health experts are telling us we still need to be careful."

People listen to music at Johnnie Brown's on East Atlantic Avenue in downtown Delray Beach on Sunday, March 21.

At O'Shea's Irish Pub, at 531 Clematis St., owner Maurice Costigan has seen both sides of the equation, the money side and the human side.

He saw business take a dive when the pandemic set in last March. He didn't lay anyone off but slashed hours for months, keeping employees as busy as he could doing repairs and renovations.

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Costigan, 55, managed to avoid catching COVID. "I don’t know how I have not got it," he said in his strong Irish brogue.

But his son Niall, who works at the bar, got mild COVID symptoms. And a bunch of his other employees went out to a barbecue together where it turned out someone had it and all had to stay off work until they could show they tested negative.

"It became a nightmare" operationally, because the pub doesn't have a huge staff, Costigan said. "If any of my staff had even the slightest bit of a cold, they had to call and go get a negative test before they could come to work."

Three or four got COVID but none with such a bad case that he or she needed hospitalization, though one was sick for a few weeks.

People dine at The Office on East Atlantic Avenue in downtown Delray Beach on Sunday, March 21.

Another bar owner he knows, though, Rod Regan of Brogue's Down Under, 621 Lake Ave. in Lake Worth Beach, caught the virus and was dead within a week, Costigan said. A Regan family member, reached at the bar this week, said she wasn't up to talking about it.

Rod Regan, late owner of Brogue's in Lake Worth Beach.

With those memories as a backdrop, many bars and restaurants nonetheless are back up to speed.

Downtown bars and restaurants near capacity again

Traffic on Interstate 95 exit ramps in Miami-Dade County backed up onto the highway from two miles away from South Beach during spring break. Miami Beach clamped down on spring break revelers by imposing an 8 p.m. curfew and shut off late-night access to the causeways.

West Palm doesn't get as big a spring break crowd as big as Miami Beach or Fort Lauderdale but Costigan does see a surge. On St. Patrick's Day, he paid the city to block off the 500 block of Clematis, enabling O'Shea's and others to spread out table service into the street, as he has for 27 years. They've been doing the same for several weekends now.

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"We've been very busy," he said, estimating that business is back up to 90 to 95 percent of what it was. "I've been pleasantly surprised by the numbers."

And while in past months, he was forced to cut employees down from six days a week to two or three, now "it's almost hard to find employees," Costigan said. "This is the most shocking thing I've come across. You'd imagine there’d be people knocking down the door to get work. But no."

With vaccines becoming available, inoculated regulars have migrated back to bars, even to the inside seating. One man told Costigan the other day it was the first time he'd been back inside of O'Shea's in months. A woman who used to show up regularly for poker nights on Sundays or Mondays recently reappeared after a year, because she got vaccinated.

Lunchtime business remains slower than normal, because offices and the courthouse are still down to skeleton crews, but younger crowds are coming out at night.

In a note to constituents this week, Palm Beach County Commissioner Mack Bernard urged vigilance. Though numbers of new cases, hospitalizations and deaths are trending downward and vaccines are being distributed, troubling trends have emerged, he said.

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Until recently, the vaccines were not being distributed sufficiently in eastern, less affluent parts of the county. And while efforts are being made to increase the number of vaccination sites in those areas, the threat of vaccine-resistant variants of COVID-19 also concerns health officials. 

"Florida has the highest number of new COVID-19 variants, with 750 cases of one of the new variants. Palm Beach County specifically has 75 cases of these new variants," he wrote, citing data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "While these variants are not necessarily contributing to an increase in hospitalizations and deaths, there is a concern that one of these new variants may become the dominant strand," he said.

"Even with spring break ongoing, we must not let our guards down," Bernard concluded. "If we all continue to work together, wear our masks and maintain social distancing, we can get through this pandemic."

As more and more people become vaccinated, and people feel the end of the pandemic is near, maintaining preventions, especially along the busy districts of Clematis Street and Atlantic Boulevard, appears to be a struggle.

"I insist they have a mask to come in and I keep disinfectant everywhere," Costigan said, "but after that, there’s nothing I can do."

Palm Beach Post freelance reporters Larry Keller and Mike Diamond contributed to this report.

tdoris@pbpost.com

@TonyDorisPBP