“Normal” life may be returning to downtown Sarasota.

At Selva Grill, the south Main Street eatery known for its creative cocktails and romantic vibe, both indoor and outdoor tables are filling up with diners on a regular basis, manager Michael Heitzman said. The restaurant’s cozy bar, with a lounge area perfect for groups of people reuniting, is alive on the weekends. 

Selva is also back to its prepandemic employment level of about 50 people, as are some other local restaurants. Monk’s Steamer Bar in Gulf Gate, for example, is back to having 10 front-of-house workers on staff.

But even with locals and tourists flooding into restaurants, unemployment in the leisure and hospitality industry is still high. 

In February, the unemployment rate for the leisure and hospitality industry was 13.5% nationwide. Sarasota and Manatee counties lost 9,800 leisure and hospitality jobs between February 2020 and February 2021, according to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity. Leisure and hospitality had 39,300 employees in February 2021, compared to 49,100 the same month the year before.

Business owners say high unemployment in the industry isn’t because there aren’t jobs but because they can’t find anyone to hire. 

Mark Rosato is looking to add about eight new employees for Zuzu’s Cocktail Lounge, his Gulf Gate Drive lounge opening soon next door to his other bar, Moondoggy’s Saloon.

Mark Rosato is looking to add about eight new employees for Zuzu’s Cocktail Lounge, his Gulf Gate Drive lounge opening soon next door to his other bar, Moondoggy’s Saloon. 

Federal relief may discourage jobseekers

Rosato and his general manager, Debby Keehbauch, said they rely on word of mouth and sometimes Craigslist to look for employees, but they haven’t been able to find many good fits. They think it’s because of the extended unemployment benefits that were put forth in the newest COVID relief law.