Business is back. Events are back. And our neighbors and friends are back out around town. The crisis isn’t over, but with a renewed commitment to our community, we’re finally able to battle it back together.
It was, perhaps, the darkest day in Alejandro Martinez’s life as a restaurateur.
Alejandro was planning a typically busy Friday at his Stefano’s Trattoria in Winter Springs when he got the word. Due to the growing coronavirus crisis, all indoor restaurant dining in Florida was to cease immediately. This was March 2020.
Alejandro had to cancel all reservations for the weekend and text his employees to stay home. Anxiety and uncertainty replaced the buzz of a busy restaurant day.
Today, it’s a whole new story as the COVID-19 crisis finally begins to recede and the economy slowly, carefully reopens in Winter Springs and Oviedo. In fact, Stefano’s has enjoyed record sales in recent months, with diners relishing the return to normal life.
“Business has been incredibly good,” Alejandro says with a thankful sigh.
The number of employees at Stefano’s stood at 48 before the pandemic hit, then shrunk to 12. Today, it’s at 54.
Local leaders can point to other signs of renewed routines and economic recovery.
At a recent Oviedo-Winter Springs Regional Chamber of Commerce luncheon, Mayor Megan Sladek of Oviedo recalls that everyone was mask-free, confident vaccinations in the community had reached a tipping point.
“No one missed a beat, and everyone was back to shaking hands,” Megan says.
A number of business projects that were put on hold when the pandemic broke out are now back in gear, says Mayor Kevin McCann of Winter Springs. A new fast-food restaurant recently held its grand opening, and work has resumed on a new restaurant and gym.
Across the two cities, everyone is looking forward to Fourth of July celebrations and independence from the restrictions that were in place before vaccines kicked in.
“We expect a large turnout by our residents and are looking forward to sharing time together as a community,” Kevin says.
Local hotels are starting to fill up again, too.
"We opened this hotel during the pandemic, and every month gets better now that COVID restrictions are easing," says Sarah Ehmke, director of sales of The Celeste Hotel, located on the UCF campus. "We are currently experiencing a surge of travel, which we expect will continue for the fall as UCF is now open at 100 percent capacity. There is light at the end of this very long year. In a people-driven industry like ours, it's so important to have face-to-face interactions with our guests, and now that the mask mandate is lifted, we're finally starting to see smiling faces again."
Major events on the upcoming calendar include the Winter Springs Festival of the Arts in October and Oviedo’s always-popular Oktoberfest.
Bridget Lake, president of the Oviedo-Winter Springs Chamber, had to laugh when asked which of those upcoming events were unthinkable only a year ago.
“All of them,” Bridget says, remembering how Zoom celebrations and other virtual gatherings became a poor but necessary substitute for the events we all enjoy. “Now, it’s difficult to get registrations for the virtual events we’re still holding. Everyone wants to meet face-to-face.”
For Bridget, personally, the return to normalcy means such small pleasures as going to the spa for a massage and hugging an older relative.
A turning point came in May when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that fully vaccinated people could resume normal activities, both indoors and outdoors, without wearing a mask or physically distancing. No one is declaring the epidemic over by any means, though, and local leaders implore everyone to treat this transitional phase with the delicacy it deserves.
“Be understanding and patient with your neighbors,” is the advice of Mayor McCann.
If you have decided to have your vaccine and forego a mask, that’s great, Kevin says. If you want to keep wearing a mask because of health concerns, that is perfectly fine, too.
“We are united as a community and will remain united through the end of this historic time,” says Kevin.
Indeed, the residents of Oviedo and Winter Springs exhibited countless signs of unity during the darkest days of this past year.
Stefano’s was forced to close its dining room from March to October and stick to takeout orders. What happened as a result? Regulars who typically visited once a month were showing up once a week to demonstrate their support, Alejandro says. They were also leaving $100 tips for a cheesecake or appetizer to keep essential income flowing for the staff.
Alejandro says the reliance on takeout and the rise of food-delivery apps have opened a whole new world in the restaurant business. And that’s not a bad thing, he contends, because takeout and delivery are more economically efficient for a restaurant.
“Takeout saved my restaurant,” says Tavo Mendez, general manager of Rock & Brews in Oviedo. “The way the community rallied around Rock & Brews and our staff during the pandemic was inspiring. I’d never seen anything like it, and now with our dining room filling up again and takeout business still going strong, we’re doing better than ever.”
Tavo deserves credit for helping rally the community to his cause. To encourage takeout business when Rock & Brews was closed, he organized fun events like toilet paper giveaways and drive-in rock concerts to thank his loyal patrons. They, in turn, kept Rock & Brews alive and are now keeping dozens of local jobs on the books.
The many different ways local diners are enjoying the area’s eateries these days are just part of our new normal.
Similarly, says Mayor Sladek, the pandemic shifted people’s tolerance for time wasted commuting back and forth to the office. In-person meetings that seemed essential before we’d ever heard the word COVID suddenly make much more sense as a video conference, if they happen at all.
Life in Oviedo-Winter Springs will never be quite the same as it was before, and that’s OK, but one thing is certain: We’re back, and we’re better and stronger than ever.
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