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After Massive Growth, Wynwood Faces Summer of Uncertainty

The day before the City of Miami closed non-essential businesses to slow the spread of COVID-19, Centro Wynwood had what would be the club's final bash for a while.

Dominican rapper Bulin 47 practically brought the house down on March 15, the Sunday before businesses started closing their doors. He performed on crutches following a jet ski accident, unwilling to cancel the show.

"He didn't want to disappoint anybody," says Riste Sekuloski, a managing partner at Centro. "If I knew then what I know now, it would've been a bigger party."

After being closed for more than two months, restaurants in the City of Miami, including those in Wynwood, can reopen their dining rooms today, one week after retail spaces, parks, salons, and office spaces were allowed to get back to business. That means most of Wynwood — except for the bars that don't serve food — will be up and running, although business owners don't expect things to go back to normal for quite some time.

Wynwood, like many other parts of the state, relies heavily on tourism as an economic driver. While business owners say locals provide a good foundation as loyal supporters, revenue from the height of tourist season carries them through the slower months of the year. The pandemic struck as peak tourist season was winding down, but it remains to be seen when visitors will flock to the neighborhood again.

Some Wynwood business owners say that just because they're allowed to reopen doesn't mean it's the right move for them — operating a business, cutting capacity, and enforcing social distancing and mask-wearing is a juggling act some are still figuring out. Others are ready to go and eager for customers to return, although they know the lively, crowded, buzzing Wynwood they're accustomed to won't immediately return.

"I've been living and working in the neighborhood for six years, seeing the massive growth and changes that have come," says Brad Kilgore, chef and owner of the fine dining restaurant Alter. "What came to the neighborhood was mass gatherings. It became a huge gathering space — people walking shoulder to shoulder, sidewalks full. I think what we're going to see is a life similar to what it was like in the beginning. Business might be more sporadic because maybe large gatherings won't be as acceptable anymore."

During the first six weeks of the pandemic, Kilgore offered customers delivery and also started selling groceries. He donated hundreds of meals a day for about a week before closing up shop and planning for an eventual reopening. But he says he'll wait a little longer to welcome people back to his dining room.

"I read through the Phase 1 guidelines," he says. "It paints a certain picture in your head about what the customer and staff experience will look like. It's definitely a tough picture. We're going to take our time a little bit. That way we can have a full game plan that's putting our best foot forward and making sure that everyone is safe."

Safety and cleanliness are at the top of business owners' minds. Some worry about what it will take to abide by all the rules required for them to reopen. If certain spots live and die by online reviews, and if a few negative experiences posted online can detract customers, how can businesses provide an escape and preserve an atmosphere that draws customers while also disinfecting surfaces every 30 minutes and making sure people wear masks? The burden of responsibility for the health of employees and customers weighs heavily, now more than ever.

"I think part of my job as the owner now is to assume that someone could get sick," says Adam Gersten, owner of the bar Gramps. "So we just want to make sure that people are being really diligent. We're going to have to focus on different things."

Like Kilgore, Gersten says he's in no rush to reopen. He'll take his time, expand Gramps' food offerings, and serve drinks with meals when the time comes. He wants businesses in Wynwood to succeed and survive the pandemic, but he also worries that, in people's excitement to get out of the house and restore some normalcy, things could get out of hand.

"If under the guise of needing to get people back to work there's a total relaxation and a free-for-all, it will drive away traffic from all the businesses looking to reconnect with their guests," he says. "That's my concern."

And if businesses reopen only to have to close again because of public-health reasons, that could be devastating, Gersten says.

Lots of people's favorite Wynwood spots — Gramps, Panther Coffee, Coyo Taco, The Salty Donut, Kush, Zak the Baker, among others — stayed open during the pandemic by offering pickup or delivery.

Albert Garcia, chair of the Wynwood Business Improvement District (BID), a City of Miami board that represents business and property owners, says the BID is in the process of canvassing businesses to get an accurate picture of their financial losses. Garcia believes restaurants that quickly pivoted to takeout and delivery models fared better, but he estimates businesses in general likely experienced a 50- to 90-percent decrease in revenue.

Garcia says the BID is partnering with the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau on advertising campaigns to attract domestic and regional tourism to Wynwood, but he knows people might be hesitant to venture out because of health concerns.

"We acknowledge that people are going to be fearful," he says. "While there's going to be lots of issues and technical hurdles that all businesses will have to work through to come into compliance, convincing people that it's safe to return in general is going to be the biggest challenge."

The Wynwood Walls, among the most popular tourist draws, closed in mid-March and has not yet reopened.

"I think I am in the cautious camp," says Jessica Goldman Srebnick, CEO of Goldman Properties and owner of the Wynwood Walls. "I think it's irresponsible to sugarcoat things. I think we have to be incredibly, incredibly disciplined about how we open, when we open, and what that looks like."

Srebnick says she's not ready to share a timeline for reopening, but she says she hopes Wynwood's art can be a balm for locals and visitors.

"I've been thinking about whether art is important in a time of crisis, and I think it's critically important because it's what brings us together," she says. "It's what brings us hope and helps us hope. We want to open, and we want everyone to enjoy Wynwood like they always have. I think art and creativity is as important as ever."

Sekuloski, the managing partner at Centro, hopes his bar and others will make their comeback soon. He says that while he's not aware of any timeline for reopening, Centro and other bars are sanitizing and taking a look at their spaces so that if their day soon comes, they can be ready.

Still, he worries about the survival of part of the hospitality industry in Wynwood.

"If people are afraid, I really don't see them coming out," Sekuloski says. "Unfortunately, that doesn't leave us anywhere. At that point, we'd have to close up shop. We'd be in trouble. Then you're pretty much seeing a whole sector of the hospitality industry not survive due to people having fear, and that's understandable."

While everyone adjusts to Miami's new rules and regulations, businesses ask their customers to be patient.

"This is a tough industry, and it's a scary situation for our staff to be out and mingling with new people," Kilgore says. "And I hope they're understanding of the steps the restaurant and hospitality industry have to take. It might take a little more time to get out your food and your drink. Bear with us as we all get through these next steps."

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