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Gainesville Businesses Decline While COVID-19 Cases Increase

As UF surpasses many universities in COVID-19 cases, Gainesville businesses are continuing to struggle in order to stay afloat. With 5,008 cases as of Nov. 19, UF now ranks second in the country for COVID-19 cases, according to the New York Times.

On April 3, Leonardo’s 706 became one of the first businesses to close because of COVID-19 after being open for 47 years. 

According to the Gainesville Sun, former co-owners Steve Solomon and Mark Newman, both over the age of 70, do not feel “particularly safe” working amid a pandemic.

Nicolette Zangara, 22, a bartender who worked at Leonardo’s for two years, was surprised when they shut down so early.  

“When people think of Gainesville, they think of 706,” Zangara said. “People went to Leonardo’s to celebrate milestones.”

She said that it felt like one of those restaurants that would stay open no matter the circumstances. 

“It was a bit of a shock, but I felt it was the right thing to do to keep everyone safe,” she said.

The issue surrounding safety is why Hannah Harding, 21, a former server at the Swamp Restaurant, said that the restaurant closing may have been for the best. 

According to WCJB, the Swamp Restaurant closed after being open for more than 25 years in late June when a development company bought the land.

A high-rise apartment complex is set to take its place. A new version of the Swamp will open inside of the apartment complex by Jan. 2022

“I don't think they would have cared about COVID-19 or followed any regulations. All they really cared about was the money and popularity of the restaurant,” Harding said. 

One of the more recent restaurant closures during COVID-19 was Felipe’s Taqueria. Its doors shut on Nov. 1 after being open for four years. Like the Swamp, Felipe’s sold its property to developers

Leo Claros, 23, was a shift leader at Felipe’s. He said that he loved his job. 

“I liked being able to stay connected with my Hispanic culture and being able to meet people with the same mentality,” Claros said. “The staff was a family.”

Claros said that people walked through the door so often that the employees memorized their orders.

According to Claros, one of his co-workers was in charge of keeping up with health regulations and was very strict about it.

Felipe’s followed health guidelines “as much as they possibly could,” according to Claros. But he said that they sold the location to move to Naples where there was a greater opportunity for growth.  

Claros said that Latinxs made up most of their customer base, but many have felt too scared to eat at restaurants because of the virus. 

According to UF Health News, Latinxs and Black Americans were already dealing with serious health disparities, such as “higher rates of cancer, obesity, diabetes, hypertension and heart disease.”

Dr. Elizabeth A. Shenkman, chair of the Department of Health Outcomes and Biomedical Informatics in the UF College of Medicine, said COVID-19 added another health disparity to the list.

Racial minorities may be disproportionately affected because of their increased rates of exposure. According to the Economy Policy Institute, people of color make up 50% of the essential workers in food and agriculture and 53% of those in industrial, commercial, residential facilities and services. 

As local businesses that employ people of color close and case numbers continue to climb, both health and financial stability are compromised.  

Throughout the hardship, Zangara chooses to see the positive in this situation.

“When you lose your job, you have to move on. You have to pick yourself up off the ground,” Zangara said. “COVID has been really eye-opening, but we have to ask ourselves: How do we transform and adapt to our new situation?” 

Grace Romo is a fourth-year journalism and African American studies student. She loves writing poetry, reading books and daydreaming about plane rides. She is extremely passionate about social justice, immigration reform and environmental activism.
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