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From job loss, to balancing work from home to the isolation of following stay-at-home orders, coronavirus has changed our everyday lives. WUSF is giving you a voice to share those experiences.

The Pandemic Year: Bartender Credits Loyal Customers For Surviving Shutdowns

Man wearing a face mask stands behind a bar resting his hand on a beer tap.
Stephanie Colombini
Bartender Matt Yungaitis thanks all the people who supported his bar with to-go orders while it was closed for months due to coronavirus restrictions.

From switching to table service to hand sanitizer "all over the place," Matt Yungaitis says he and his coworkers had to adapt after the state shut down bars twice during the pandemic. But he says business has been good lately.

Around this time last year, COVID-19 began forcing the nation to shut down. Just about everyone's life was disrupted. This week, we're listening to the voices of everyday Floridians who were impacted by the pandemic.

Today we hear from Matt Yungaitus, a bartender at c.1949 Florida Beer Garden near Tampa's Seminole Heights neighborhood. He walks us through his rollercoaster year of repeat shutdowns and the community that got him through it.

When it really kind of came to our doorstep, and when we realized, “Oh, okay, so now we are shutting down,” if my memory serves correctly, I think it was on St. Patrick's Day. We open at four o'clock, like every day throughout the week. And I think the mandate was we had to close at 5 p.m. So we actually decided to open up for an hour.

We had people actually sitting at the bar, and they're like, “Well, if I can't drink anymore, I'm going to make sure I get some drinks in before we do it.” And then once we closed the door, you know, at five o'clock, we kind of looked at each other, and go, “Okay, this is definitely like a real problem.”

And it was really tough for everybody, I mean, I had my pay cut by probably 65% for months.

When we were closed for five months, you know, we had a lot of people come through and still patronize us. We were doing a lot of the to-go sales. The people who have come in here to support us, I mean, they could really have gone to other places and just, you know, maybe gotten it for a lower price, or it just may be more convenient for them to go somewhere else. But they're the ones that keep the world moving, right?

Everybody kind of supports each other, you know, and I think there was a good draw and a feeling of community once that really, that really happened. That really kept me moving forward and kept my dog eating food.

So reopening and then having to close, I think it was about three weeks, we had to close again three weeks later. That was discouraging to close down again, you know, for multiple reasons. You look at it as a way of being like, when is this going to end? But you know, we made it through.

We really doubled down and we really took our cleaning protocols very seriously. We were numbering the amount of chairs we could have in here, wiping everything down, hand sanitizer all over the place. Because you know, people are getting sick, who wants to get sick?

Some people don't take it seriously. But why even try to pass it along to somebody? I also have met people who have lost some people to coronavirus, I actually lost my uncle to it. So we were really just trying to take it very seriously.

We are doing pretty strict table service. Nobody really comes up to the bar and ask for beer anymore. They kind of just wait for me to come by and get them one. And that's kind of how it's grown and the mindset has moved. So people have really caught on to the table service.

The one thing I have to keep up with the most is trying to get people to wear their masks. For some people, it's harmless, you know, they'll like sit down and they'll take their mask off and then get up and walk away without it. But overall, everybody’s been pretty much on board with the mandate.

So business has been good here, yeah, since we've reopened. You know, I think a lot of people feel comfortable here. And I think that has a lot to do with just this general community of Lowry Park, the Seminole Heights area. A lot of people who live on these streets behind us, they just walk here or bike on over. I feel like I could knock on like one out of every five doors back here and go, “Oh, so you live here, want to hang out?”

And we have a really nice outdoor area that’s a beer garden. It’s very spacious and I think a lot of people feel very comfortable out there.

Me personally, I have a pretty optimistic feeling for the future. Both my parents have been vaccinated, I have people that come in here all the time who go, “I just got my second vaccine, just got my first vaccine, etc.” Hopefully, once it's under control, people are going to be ready to go out and start kind of living their lives again.

I cover health care for WUSF and the statewide journalism collaborative Health News Florida. I’m passionate about highlighting community efforts to improve the quality of care in our state and make it more accessible to all Floridians. I’m also committed to holding those in power accountable when they fail to prioritize the health needs of the people they serve.