St. Augustine tourism and businesses adapt to COVID-19

St. Augustine streets have been mostly empty as local businesses close for COVID-19. Photo by Maiya Mahoney

By Maiya Mahoney

St. Augustine, Fla., is now truly a ghost town. St. Augustine’s cobblestone streets remain barren, most businesses are closed and the trolleys full of tourists are nowhere to be found. As of March 17, all bars have had to close and restaurants have converted to carryout and delivery only.

COVID-19, also known as the coronavirus, has swept across Florida, forcing many businesses in St. Augustine to close or find ways to adapt. As Floridians and people around the world are called to social distance and stay at home, St. Augustine’s local businesses and tourism industry faces challenges. 

According to Niki Kemper, general manager at The Tasting Tours in St. Augustine, the business has had to refund over $7,000 in pre-paid tours since March 12 and is down around $25,000 in revenue so far. The Tasting Tours, according to Kemper, provides about $120,000 into the economy just by supporting local restaurants.

“All of our tours revolve around exploring St. Augustine and learning about St. Augustine through food and wine. We take large groups of people out on these tours,” Kemper said. “With social distancing and not being able to eat in a restaurant and drink alcohol, we’ve had to completely close down for now.”

For Kemper, the hardest part has not being able to see local business owners and share St. Augustine with others. 

“I’d say the most challenging is not being able to show off St. Augustine and teach people about the local culture,” Kemper said. “Also, not being able to see the local business owners everyday. We have such a deep relationship with the business owners and having that social separation from downtown St. Augustine has been difficult.”

Even though The Tasting Tours are closed until further notice, Kemper and her team are still working on ways to keep the business relevant. 

“We have been trying to think of creative ways to keep people interested in what makes St. Augustine special. We have had to change the way we communicate with our guests on social media,” Kemper said. “We’ve been posting a lot more historical information. We’ve been trying to keep people interested, not from a tourism standpoint, but a historical standpoint.”

Another local business in St. Augustine that has been affected is Sarbez. Known for its gourmet grilled cheese, craft beer, games and live performances, Sarbez has found new ways to improvise due to COVID-19. Sarbez owner Ryan Kunsch has converted his space into a market where he  offers essentials such as bread, toilet paper, pasta and more for people to buy.

“The fact that we can be open, make some money, and have employees work some hours is definitely better than nothing,” Kunsch said. “We consider ourselves a vital spot to the community, so this obviously helps with that. We are very much a community-oriented place.” 

In addition to providing essentials from its food distributor, Sarbez is still offering its grilled cheese to go and selling beer, wine, soda, coffee, and kombucha to go. Customers can also still get beer on draft to go and enjoy half off grilled cheese from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. 

“I think it’s extremely important and is always important to support local businesses,” Kunsch said. “Now way more than ever.”

As the next few months remain uncertain for St. Augustine tourism and local businesses, Kunsch has tried to remain positive. 

“My motto is ‘adapt or be trapped,’” Kunsch said. “You have to adapt to what’s going on. We’ve had hurricanes and break-ins and have been able to figure it out. There’s always going to be something that comes your way. That’s what small business is all about.”

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