COVID-19 update: Solutions designed to help bridge Tampa Bay through this crisis

Tampa Bay, like the entire state of Florida and the country, is dealing with a new reality. Social distancing has joined the lexicon while everyone’s collective calendar has “shelter at home” written across it.
After photos of a packed Clearwater Beach appeared on news reports, Pinellas County commissioners voted to close all public beaches and public beach parking areas until at least April 6. Tampa area beaches are also closed temporarily.
Gov. Ron DeSantis has ordered all gyms to close and restaurants to provide food only through delivery and takeout. The Governor’s order lifts some restrictions to allow for the sale of alcohol with to-go meals. But as of March 23rd, no lockdown ordered statewide or locally.

Social restrictions are hard on everyone, we humans are basically social creatures, but the isolation is particularly challenging for seniors and the home-bound, as well as those dealing with depression and mental health issues. Checking on family, friends, and neighbors is especially important now.
Also important is offering assistance to non-profit organizations that serve the most vulnerable segments of the population. Low-income families living paycheck to paycheck face multiple challenges, among them food insecurity.

Lend a hand if you can
Our Lady of Guadalupe Food Pantry in the Wimauma area of southern Hillsborough County, run by Tom Bullaro and his wife, Anita, reports that 16 new families came to ask for food this past Saturday alone.

“The poor don’t have the chance to stockpile,” Bullaro says. “Our Lady’s Pantry,” as it is known, needs donations, food, and very importantly, volunteers. Somebody has to do it. If you’re healthy enough [and willing and able to take precautions], please come.” Contact Tom Bullaro at 813-373-3787.
Ileana Cintron, Deputy Director of Enterprising Latinas, a woman’s empowerment and economic development organization located in Wimauma in south Hillsborough County, says she, too, is worried.

“Volunteers and donations have dwindled increasing food insecurity for many in our community. We know late March-early April is going to be the peak of this virus. We are planning in advance. We’re going to be surveying our members all week to determine their needs and connect them to resources.” To help, call Enterprising Latinas at 813-699-5811.

Indeed, volunteers are needed across Tampa Bay. If you are healthy and willing to help, United Way Suncoast is assisting its community partners to continue to provide services. Organizations needing help are listed here.

In an effort to use our solutions journalism media platform to help communicate and inform, 83 Degrees has compiled the following information based on news releases and social media.

Current updates

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

Florida Department of Health: The COVID-19 Call Center is available 24/7 at 866-779-61621 or email [email protected]

Hillsborough County COVID-19 information and sign up for HCFL Alerts.

City of Tampa: Tampa residents can sign up to receive text message alerts on the City of Tampa’s response to the coronavirus by texting TAMPAREADY or, for Spanish translations, TAMPALISTA to 888-777. Business owners and employees who have been affected by recent shutdowns can also get more information on financial aid and other available assistance by texting TAMPABIZ to 888-777. 

Florida Department of Emergency Management COVID-19 hotline: The call center is open 24/7 for questions at 866-779-6121. Information is available in English, Spanish, and Creole.

Dial 211 to be Connected to Disaster Assistance 24/7 for those in need including information and referrals for housing, food and meals, healthcare, and crisis counseling.

COVID-19 testing centers

In Tampa, a drive-through testing site will be open Wednesday-Saturday, from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the parking lot south of  Raymond James Stadium bordered by Tom McEwen Boulevard on the north, Dale Mabry Highway to the west, and Himes Avenue to the east. Vehicles should enter from Dale Mabry or Himes. The entry will be marked with signage.
The site will be staffed by health care professionals in medical protective gear who are trained to test for COVID-19 coronavirus. Directional signage and law enforcement will help residents through the testing site in an orderly fashion.
The drive-through testing site will remain operational as long as there is a supply of collection kits available. 

Pre-screening and pre-registration are required. To register, call the Hillsborough County Customer Service Center at 813-272-5900. The call center is augmented with health care staff Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

For more information on COVID-19, and any other potential emergency in the county, visit and sign up for the HCFL Alert system.

BayCare also is repositioning resources in response to the novel coronavirus outbreak to help stem the spread of COVID-19.
If you suspect you have coronavirus and have not yet been screened for COVID-19 by a provider, visit Baycare online on your smartphone or computer 24/7 to have a virtual visit with a provider.

Pre-screening is necessary before accessing a COVID-19 testing site. Multiple testing sites are open. For additional information, please visit Baycare's website

United Way Suncoast

United Way Suncoast has launched the COVID-19 Response and Recovery Fund with an initial commitment of $250,000. Contributions can be made by visiting the Covid19 Fund online

United Way Suncoast has launched an easy-to-use mobile TEXT to Give campaign so that if you would like to use a simple platform to make a donation, all you have to do is text CV19 to 41444 and you can make a contribution to the COVID-19 Response and Recovery Fund.
Because employees at some of the largest employers in the Tampa Bay Area are looking for ways that they can contribute meaningful service to those in need during this extreme crisis, United Way Suncoast has rolled out a COVID-19 Community Engagement Platform to keep those employees connected to the community response to COVID-19 and how they can help. This gives those employees access to understand the needs in response to this crisis as well as a direct channel for giving to charities most important to them.

United Way Suncoast has created a COVID-19 Assistance and Resource page that is being continually updated to provide community members with the most up-to-date information regarding the coronavirus, along with resources to help with financial hardships during the crisis. 
United Way Suncoast also is actively assisting members of the community through services such as Simply call 211 from your phone to access information about how to get assistance for yourself or other needy members of our community.

Tampa Bay Rapid Response Fund

The Tampa Bay Rapid Response Fund founded by the Community Foundation of Tampa Bay in response to the COVID-19 pandemic is another way to contribute.

Money from the fund will be deployed as soon as possible to community-based organizations at the frontlines of an emergency or natural disaster. In any crisis, the nonprofit organizations most immediately impacted are those that work with society’s most vulnerable people and families. Those include:
  • Food pantries and food distribution agencies
  • Services to the elderly
  • Community health centers
  • Homeless shelters
  • Child-care providers
The Foundation’s professional staff in consultation with other Tampa Bay Area experts promises to strategically grant money from the fund so that it can have the strongest impact to help the people hardest hit by whatever emergency they face.

Donations are tax-deductible.

Feeding children is priority

Through April 15th, Hillsborough County Public Schools are serving meals for schoolchildren at 23 Grab-and-Go feeding sites to ensure that students have access to nutritious meals for free.

Each location will provide food for anyone under age 18 on Mondays through Fridays from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m. Parents and caregivers are encouraged to drive to the locations for pickup. Walk-ups will also be accepted. The food will be distributed directly from school buses parked in the usual car line at the designated schools.

In order to keep a record of the food distribution, students must be present in order for them or their parents to receive a bagged breakfast and lunch. Meals can be picked up only once a day.
Follow this link to a list of Grab & Go locations.

The Pinellas County Schools Food and Nutrition Team will be distributing free meals this week at nine of the system’s schools for Pinellas County Schools students under age 18. Breakfast and lunch will be available in a single bag for pickup by parents or other caregivers who drive to the following schools (walk-ups will also be accepted):
  • Dunedin Elementary, 10:45 a.m. to 11:45 a.m.
  • Eisenhower Elementary in Clearwater, 11 a.m. to noon
  • Fairmount Park Elementary in St. Petersburg, 10:15 a.m. to 11:15 a.m.
  • Marjorie K. Rawlings Elementary in Pinellas Park, 10:15 to 11:15 a.m.
  • John Hopkins Middle in St. Petersburg, 10:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.
  • New Heights Elementary in St. Petersburg, 10:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.
  • Ponce De Leon Elementary in Clearwater, 11:15 a.m. to 12:15 p.m.
  • Southern Oak Elementary in Largo, 11:15 a.m. to 12:15 p.m.
  • Tarpon Springs Elementary, 10:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.
If you are not able to go to one of the school sites listed above, other local food providers throughout Pinellas County are offering free, nutritious meals for students. Here is a complete list of the Pinellas sites.

The district is working to expand the number of distribution sites beginning March 30. An updated list will be announced as soon as it is finalized.

Meals on Wheels 4 Kids
A first-of-its-kind program, Meals On Wheels 4 Kids (MOW4Kids) is available now in St. Petersburg in response to COVID-19 school closures. The program is aimed at families who lack transportation for aren't able to get to pick-up sites provided by the schools. It serves children, 18 years or younger, with a weekly meal pack delivered to their home by a volunteer on Mondays.

At the core of this Meals on Wheels program is a 5-day meal pack that meets the nutritional guidelines for the National School Breakfast & Lunch programs. The program will also be able to provide groceries as resources allow.
Deliveries will be made to kids under age 18 who can eat solid food. Participants must be home to receive the meal.

MOW4Kids is an alternative option for kids who are not able to access any of the school meal distribution sites throughout the county; and/or kids who have difficulty accessing open food pantries.

The program utilizes volunteers to deliver meals directly to the homes of kids between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Deliveries will be made to the following St. Petersburg zip codes: 33701, 33705, 33707, 33711, 33712, 33713.

Meals On Wheels volunteers have received background checks and training prior to delivery.

To submit an application, call Tampa Bay Network to End Hunger at (813) 344-5837 or the Network to End Hunger online. 

Metropolitan Ministries and Feeding Tampa Bay
Acknowledging that this is a challenging time for both residents and businesses, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor is urging restaurants to donate what they can to Metropolitan Ministries and Feeding Tampa Bay to minimize hunger in the community and ensure that people’s basic needs are met.

Following Governor Desantis’ Executive Order, Florida restaurants and bars have closed their on-site dining facilities and are servicing customers on a delivery and carryout only basis resulting in a hard to predict balance between what to order from purveyors and what gets sold to customers.
Restaurants interested in donating unused food may contact Feeding Tampa Bay by emailing Pete Lenhardt or calling him at 727-741-3193 or Metropolitan Ministries (email Paula Dang or call her at 813-209-1226 direct.)

City of Tampa 
The City of Tampa is launching a Hotline for Social Recovery and Business Relief to keep residents informed on the latest social services and business relief efforts.
The City has begun proactively reaching out to nonprofits, local partners, and local, state, and federal leaders, to assemble a comprehensive list of key resources and information.

Residents and business owners can call the Tampa Recovery Hotline at 1 (833) TPA-INFO for the following resources:
  • Social services: Residents can call this hotline to ask questions and get information on food assistance, senior services, financial resources, and more. 
  • Business relief: Business owners can also get resources through this hotline, including information on the Small Business Bridge Loan, the City’s TAMPABIZ text-alert system, and other local, state, and federal resources as they become available to alleviate the burden of COVID-19.
In addition to this hotline, residents and business owners can also take advantage of the following City of Tampa resources: 
  • Visit the city’s new COVID-19 platform for FAQs, coronavirus information on symptoms, prevention, and treatment, the latest executive orders, and more
  • Text TAMPAREADY or TAMPALISTA to 888-777 for real-time emergency alerts in English or Spanish
  • Text TAMPABIZ to 888-777 for updates on business resources
  • See a list of canceled City of Tampa events
Follow the City of Tampa on social media for updates, Facebook Live coverage, and more:To reach the Tampa Recovery Hotline, call 1 (833) TPA-INFO (1-833-872-4636). The call center will be open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday until further notice.

For more information, visit the city's website.

Court fines and fees extended for 60 days

In an effort to reduce the public’s exposure to COVID-19, the financial due dates set from March 18 through Dec. 31, 2020, for all Hillsborough County Criminal and Traffic cases have been extended for an additional 60 days.

“We hope this will ease the concerns many people have in our community as a result of the Coronavirus crisis,” says Clerk of the Court Pat Frank. “It is also the latest attempt we have made to discourage the public from going to any of our offices. The safety of the public and my employees is my paramount concern.

”While many fines and fees can be paid online at, that is not an option for a large segment of our community who do not have bank accounts or credit cards. They are forced to pay in cash in person at one of our offices, risking exposure of themselves and employees.''

Bridge loans for small businesses

The Florida SBDC at the University of South Florida will facilitate the loan process for the Florida Small Business Emergency Bridge Loan Program, for small businesses in the Tampa Bay region.

The Florida Small Business Emergency Bridge Loan Program is available to small businesses in Florida that are experiencing economic damage as a result of COVID-19.
The Florida SBDC at USF will accept applications for the following counties: Desoto, Hardee, Hernando, Highlands, Hillsborough, Manatee, Pasco, Pinellas, Polk, and Sarasota.

To qualify, applicants must be for-profit, privately held small businesses that maintain a place of business in Florida. Businesses must also be an employer with 2 to 100 employees. Loans are interest-free for one year. Businesses can qualify for up to $50,000 in most instances. Applications will be accepted through May 8.

Florida SBDC Network business consultants, many of whom are Disaster Recovery Institute (DRI) Certified Business Continuity Professionals, are available to assist small businesses through the loan application process and with other COVID-19-related challenges at no-cost.

Due to the overwhelming response to the opening of the bridge loan program, the Florida SBDC is  asking small businesses to take the following steps:
  1. Review eligibility requirements and loan process. 
  2. Register with the SBDC by following this link
  3. Download, complete, and sign the application form. 
  4. Gather required support documentation. 
  5. Submit completed and signed application and support documentation to [email protected].
Applications missing supporting documents are considered incomplete and will only delay the process. Once these steps are completed, the SBDC will be able to assign a consultant to process the application package.

It is important to note that only one method of submission is required, and the most expedited option is to submit applications and any other inquiries via the email linked above.
For additional qualifications and details for getting started, visit the Tampa Bay Area SBDC online. Details for how to submit the completed application and documentation are available on this webpage. All updates or changes to the process will be communicated via this webpage as well.

Federal help

The U.S. Small Business Administration has announced that small businesses located in Florida that are adversely impacted by COVID-19 can now apply for disaster loans.

For small businesses, small agricultural cooperatives, small businesses engaged in aquaculture, and most private nonprofit organizations, the SBA is offering Economic Injury Disaster Loans to help meet working capital needs caused by the coronavirus.
SBA Economic Injury Disaster Loans offer up to $2 million in economic assistance to help small businesses overcome the temporary loss of revenue resulting from the COVID-19 disaster. These loans may be used to pay fixed debts, payroll, accounts payable, and other bills that can’t be paid because of the disaster’s impact.

Interest rates offered are as low as 3.75 percent for businesses without credit available elsewhere; businesses with credit available elsewhere are not eligible. The interest rate for non-profits is 2.75%.
Loan amounts are set by the SBA and based on each applicant’s financial condition. Repayment terms are up to 30 years.
To apply, visit the SBA Disaster website. For additional information, please contact the SBA Disaster Assistance Customer Service Center. Call 1-800-659-2955 (TTY: 1-800-877-8339) or e-mail [email protected].

Automatic deferments on existing SBA disaster loans

The U.S. Small Business Administration has announced changes to help borrowers still paying back SBA loans from previous disasters. By making this change, deferments through December 31, 2020, will be automatic. Now, borrowers of home and business disaster loans do not have to contact SBA to request a deferment.

This deferment adds to a list of growing actions the SBA is taking to support small businesses. These actions include making it easier for states and territories to request a declaration so small businesses statewide can now apply for economic injury disaster loans, and changing the terms of new economic injury loans to allow for one-year deferments. 

More help for businesses

For information as to how Florida businesses across the state are responding to the COVID-19 crisis as well as resources for economic relief, and economic future forecasts, visit the Florida Chamber of Commerce website. You can also find there a comprehensive overview of COVID-19 cases across Florida. is a partnership between the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) and the Florida Division of Emergency Management (DEM).

DEO is the lead agency for the State Emergency Response Team Emergency Support Function (ESF) 18. ESF-18 is tasked with coordinating local, state, and federal agency actions that provide immediate and short-term assistance to business and industry as well as economic stabilization.

Additionally, ESF-18 works with business and industry to identify available resources to meet the needs of the state and its citizens before, during, and after a disaster. Follow this link to register your business

Visit Tampa Bay

Visit Tampa Bay has partnered with Dining at a Distance™ to provide a live hub of establishments that are still open for business via take-out or delivery service.
The hub is now live at Visit Tampa Bay, where restaurant partners can submit their updated hours, service type, delivery providers and contact information.

The list includes a wide range of Tampa favorites, including casual eateries like Gallito and Goody Goody™, and even more upscale establishments like Bern’s Steak House and Élevage at the Epicurean Hotel.
Dining at a Distance™ was developed in response to the crisis created by COVID-19, wreaking havoc on the hospitality industry and its workers.

Downtown Tampa

The Tampa Downtown Partnership has launched a campaign to help businesses offering takeout or delivery services.

#TampasDowntownCurbside social media campaign highlights local restaurants offering takeout menus, allowing the Partnership’s Instagram and Twitter followers to stay informed and help support local businesses.

Local restaurants and retailers can tag #TampasDowntownCurbside to post on their social media accounts about their to-go offerings and the information will immediately post on the Partnership’s website. See what’s on the takeout menu of some of downtown Tampa’s best restaurants.

Heights Citizen Bicycle Brigade

A Volunteer Free Delivery service has been launched by participating restaurants in Seminole Heights. See more information on the flyer posted below.

New USF Pen Pal program

University of South Florida students are turning to a time-honored concept to stay connected through the COVID-19 outbreak: a pen pal.

After the mid-March announcement that fully remote course instruction will continue through the rest of the spring semester, the College Pen Pal initiative was launched by the COMPASS student experience office at USF’s St. Petersburg campus.

“We wanted to give students a fun and easy outlet to stay engaged with one another,” says Carolina Nutt, director of COMPASS. “We know that the months ahead are going to be challenging. We hope this will give them someone to turn to if they’re feeling lonely or frustrated.”

To participate, students can sign up here. Links are also available on USF’s social media pages. After filling out the online form, participants will be matched with one another by members of the COMPASS program.

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Read more articles by Pamela Varkony.

Pamela Varkony’s non-fiction topics range from politics to economic development to women's empowerment. A feature writer and former columnist for Tribune Publishing, Pamela's work has appeared in newspapers, magazines, and in PBS and NPR on-air commentaries. Her poetry has been published in the New York Times. Recognized by the Pennsylvania Women's Press Association with an "Excellence in Journalism" award, Pamela often uses her writing to advocate for women's rights and empowerment both at home and abroad. She has twice traveled to Afghanistan on fact-finding missions. Pamela was named the 2017 Pearl S. Buck International Woman of Influence for her humanitarian work. Born and raised in rural Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Pamela often weaves the lessons learned on those backcountry roads throughout her stories.