By Zachary Fagenson
MIAMI BEACH, Fla., May 27 (Reuters) - South Beach's Ocean Drive stirred to life on Wednesday after a two-month shutdown, as diners enjoyed breakfast and early cocktails along the Florida tourist thoroughfare for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic struck in March.
After four days of heavy rain, the sun was shining bright. Cyclists and roller-bladers glided up and down the oceanside strip near the still-closed beach. Up and down the drive, restaurant servers in face masks cleaned tables and menus as their first customers arrived.
"This is like opening from nothing," said Barbara Pellegrini, general manager of Il Giardino, which rehired its 60 employees at reduced hours. "The cleaning and preparation of the restaurant cost a fortune, but we're very happy and we know people want to go out, to live their lives again."
Il Giardino, a beachfront Italian restaurant catering to tourists, sits in the heart of South Beach, a neighborhood of Miami Beach renowned for its nightclubs, boutiques and hotels.
Miami Beach, perched on a series of coastal islands across Biscayne Bay from Miami proper, is part of a metropolitan region that is among the last in the United States to begin emerging from the months-long lockdown.
The partial opening comes after the Memorial Day holiday weekend, usually one of the city's busiest and most raucous weekends of the year. By waiting, officials hoped to stave off crowds like those who flocked to beaches during college spring break in mid-March, when the number of COVID-19 cases began multiplying.
Jennifer DeMarchi, who spends winters in Miami and runs a networking group for marketing professionals, was eager to get out and enjoy an early meal. She and her husband John had spent the last few days bouncing between various south Florida cities as beaches and restaurants slowly reopened.
"If the crowds become too large or the numbers start to go back up, of course we'll go back inside, of course," she said over a spinach-and-egg-white omelet. "We've been here for four months and most of it we've been stuck in an apartment, we had to get out."
South Florida's Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties have reported more COVID-19 cases than any of the state's 67 counties. As of Wednesday, Miami-Dade County had confirmed over 17,000 cases of COVID-19 and 655 deaths, according to the state health department.
The popularity of Miami Beach as a destination for Americans and international travelers pushed city leaders to pursue the slow opening. The loss of revenue under the lockdown from taxes and other fees amounts to about $3.5 million each week, according to Mayor Dan Gelber.
Restaurants can open now under certain restrictions, which include changing air conditioning filters, lengthy staff training, and 50 percent seating capacity.
The city has closed a number of streets to traffic, including Ocean Drive, and is allowing restaurants to expand their outdoor eating to help make up for some of the lost space. From June 1, beaches and hotels can open.
Not every restaurant opened on Wednesday.
Vida & Estilo Restaurant Group, which owns Havana 1957, a Cuban restaurant on Ocean Drive, as well as a dozen other South Florida eateries, has decided to wait until more tourists return and it gets a better understanding of the so-called new normal.
"We're hoping that by the end of the first quarter of 2021 we'll be back to where we were," said Matias Pesce, the company's chief executive. "2020 is a lost year, a year where all you want to do is survive." (Reporting by Zachary Fagenson in Miami Beach, Editing by Frank McGurty and Rosalba O'Brien)
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