Floridians move cautiously into summer as some restaurants, businesses reopen

It may not matter that summer seems to have snuck up on some of us who've gotten accustomed to staying mostly at home.

But for businesses trying to re-open and re-welcome visitors in a mask-wearing, sanitize-everything environment that greets what may feel like the longest weeks ever ahead, the scramble is on. 

Among the changes you can expect? Street closures like the ones you may have experienced during festivals or block parties, now being used as a pedestrian-friendly urban solution to providing more social-distancing space amid the threat of COVID-19.

Tampa, Ybor City, Clearwater, and St. Petersburg are doing it. And it's catching on or being considered in several other cities in the Tampa Bay region, throughout Florida, and the nation.

As a result, new options and new rules await. So get ready to be patient, flexible, and willing to go along to get along so everyone can stay safe and as happy as can be as we begin to venture out to dine, shop, and socialize at a distance.

Tampa

In Tampa, the decision to close some streets like Seventh Avenue in Ybor City "was a monumental project completed in a short time,” says Vik Bhide, mobility department director for the city.

Tampa officials are monitoring what aspects of the program work this weekend and can be revisited later -- for future weekends or special events, or whether to make modifications to the city’s infrastructure for more permanence.

Last week, NBC highlighted Tampa’s recovery zones on its Nightly News program. Tampa diners effused about how great it was to be able to eat out again on sidewalks and sometimes in the middle of closed-off streets while worry-free outside in gorgeous springtime weather, where they had more space and unlimited air circulation.

This week, Danni Jorgenson, Chief Transportation Planning Engineer at the City of Tampa, served as one of four panelists in a national Zoom conversation about "Streateries: Creating Space for Physical Distance at Restaurants.'' More than 730 participants from around the globe listened and sought insights as she and Barkha Patel of Jersey City talked about the role parklets, outdoor seating, and artwork play in social distancing and getting people back to work. The meeting was coordinated by NACTO (National Association of City Transportation Officials) to lift up innovative COVID-19 responses.
 
Bhide told 83 Degrees Media that he was preparing to meet with officials in Naples to discuss how Tampa approached closures on East Twiggs Street, North Franklin Street, Rome Avenue in Hyde Park Village, and Seventh Avenue in Ybor City.

“Now, many cities across the country are looking to replicate [Tampa],” Bhide says. “We've spoken to Detroit, Hollywood, Florida. There's a lot of interest out there in what we're doing.”

Wherever the closures take place, businesses must adhere to health guidelines to help minimize the spread of COVID-19.
 
“We're in touch with the businesses; we're getting feedback from them,” Bhide says. Overall, it's been a pretty positive program.”
 
A big aspect of this program is the use of parklets, he says, adding that the restaurants’ makeshift community spaces, according to city guidelines, should be set up and dismantled daily.
  
“We've set up pickup and dropoff locations for Uber eats and other delivery,” Bhide says. “We were very mindful that during the Safer-at-Home Order, it’s been deliveries, even now, that are driving our restaurant business, so we didn't want to hamper that -- we wanted to augment that. Plus, we’ve utilized parking spaces creatively to provide a ride-share drop-off and bike racks.”

Having both code enforcement and law enforcement well at hand has helped immensely, he says, adding that having the city's former police chief as the mayor has been a great advantage.

"Mayor Jane Castor anticipated a lot of the challenges,'' Bhide says. “She’s all about execution and knowing what your biggest risk factors are.”

The street closures are just one part of the City of Tampa's Lift Up Local economic recovery plan.

Clearwater

“This has been a quick and bold move for the city of Clearwater,” says Amanda Thompson, director of the city of Clearwater’s Community Redevelopment Agency. 

Thompson is referring to the city’s 400 and 500 blocks of Cleveland Street, which are now closed to vehicular traffic. Downtown businesses and restaurants are permitted to operate at 25 percent capacity and have expanded their services into the street in order to comply with physical distancing guidelines.

Thompson of the CRA says that she and her staff are looking at a restaurant and bar voucher program and working on a series of marketing and social media campaigns. The CRA will be promoting in-person events that are “safe and social,” virtual events, local artist showcases, in addition to a city grant program.

Clearwater officials are also using their safe-distance street-closure projects to gauge if cordoned-off blocks may be implemented on a permanent or recurring basis.

The topic certainly isn’t new to this Gulf-adjacent city. The idea of closing off a portion of Cleveland Street has been brought up for two decades -- especially since 2005, when the Alt. 19 overpass to the rebuilt Memorial Causeway was completed, bypassing the district. To make up for fewer beachgoers passing through, the Downtown Clearwater Merchants Association discussed the street-closure idea long before COVID-19, and they’re now collecting information from people who visit the Cleveland Street shops and eateries downtown, according to CRA director Thompson.
 
“I think they want to try to make the case for making this a permanent closure,” Thompson says. “Having this opportunity to try it out first will help people understand the benefit more than just imagining it.”

Find out more about the City of Clearwater's COVID-19 information and updates.

St. Petersburg
 
St. Petersburg plans to close Bayshore Drive NE (until further notice) between the Vinoy and 2nd Avenue starting today, May 22. Mayor Rick Kriseman posted on Facebook that the decision was made "to give folks who are running and cycling a bit extra room. We'll probably learn some things and do more of this in the future elsewhere.''

Read more on the Restart St. Pete plans.

Dunedin

The city of Dunedin crowd-sourced opinions on Facebook with a post that read, “Discussion on the possibility of making the downtown roads for pedestrians only. What do you think?”

“Great idea!” responded Robert Langfelder. “More walkers, less cars. Exercise and cleaner air. Healthy people walking to stores downtown is a great idea! Dunedin walk scores go up and so do property values. People pay more to be in a walkable community.”

Here's a link to COVID-19 updates from the City of Dunedin. 

Plant City

Plant City Main Street has launched a Downtown Dollars Program that will provide COVID-19 economic stimulus relief to downtown Plant City businesses.

Consumers can purchase Downtown Dollars vouchers on the Plant City Main Street website for $5, and immediately redeem them at a participating downtown business of their choice for $10 off their purchase, according to a news release. Plant City Main Street covers the difference in cost, allowing businesses full-priced sales at a time when they are being hit hard by declining revenues.

Participating downtown businesses include Brick City Bricks (a LEGO store), Jessi Rae Bridal (wedding dresses and accessories), Aromatic Harmony (massages and essential oils), The Mercantile (vintage items and handcrafted goods), and more.

Temple Terrace

To assist local restaurant owners and operators in their recovery efforts, the City of Temple Terrace has temporarily suspended outdoor seating regulations to allow restaurants to set up outdoor tables and chairs to boost seating capacity while adhering to social distancing requirements.

"The outdoor seating would not count toward the 25% maximum building occupancy so restaurant owners and operators would be able to serve a greater number of patrons while complying with the Governor’s Order and CDC social distancing guidelines,'' according to an announcement on the City's website. 

Community chatter 

On the social networking site Nextdoor, Clearwater residents chimed in about the Cleveland Street closure.

“From what I've read and seen, people are really enjoying it being open for tables,” posted Marianne Gearhart of Keene Park. “Might be just what downtown needs.”

Others were less upbeat. “I have limited walking abilities, so I can’t use any restaurants on Cleveland Street,” wrote Darryl Woodruff of Glenwood Estates. “Dumb move to block a public road for private use.”

In the end, the yays won over the nays in NextDoor's unofficial straw poll. “We were there yesterday and had a wonderful time,” Lakeview resident Wanda Contreras says. “We are hoping it stays that way.”

Some small businesses will wait a bit to reopen

Roberto Torres, owner of six Blind Tiger cafes in Tampa plus the Cass Street Deli downtown, says he may be reopening June 1 or soon after, but no official date has been set yet.

“We have been monitoring the situation and are serious about taking extra precautions,” he says, adding that he got an early jump on making operational plans when his parents visited from Panama in February and March, and they learned of the first case close to home. 

In late April, Torres posted his dining-reopening “shopping list” on Facebook: PlexiGlas; Nitrile gloves; face bio shields; N95 face masks; foam hand soap; commercial hand sinks; a Molekule fine particles air filter, which was invented and patented by USF Professor Yogi Goswami; a 50-percent capacity dining room; high-capacity thermometer; contactless payment terminals; hand sanitizer at exit doors; employee weekly testing, and biodegradable to-go eco-friendly containers.

Actively assisting the community since the recent massive shutdown, Torres has been promoting the Saturdays to-Go campaign that entices people to purchase takeout on the weekends and has served unemployed restaurant employees free meals at his Cass Street Deli. 

“We are going to implement major changes to acclimate our customers to what we believe will be the new normal for the foreseeable future,” Torres adds.

For more information, visit the Blind Tiger website.

Latest news and updates

To find the latest breaking news about coronavirus in Florida and more about local businesses that are gradually re-opening, visit the Tampa Bay Times coronavirus coverage. The Times has dropped its paywall temporarily on COVID-19 news as a public service, so non-subscribers, as well as subscribers, are able to access for free. 
 

Read more articles by Julie Garisto.

A graduate of Largo High, USF, and the University of Tampa's Creative Writing MFA program, Julie Garisto is a St. Petersburg-based writer whose recent assignments include arts features in Creative Pinellas' online magazine, Florida travel pieces in Visit Tampa Bay and Visit Jacksonville, as well as features and reviews in the Tampa Bay Times. Her previous journalistic roles include arts and entertainment for Creative Loafing, staff writer for the Tampa Bay Times, and copy editor for the Weekly Planet. Lately, she's been obsessed with exploring Florida's State Parks, small towns, and natural springs.
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