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Check, please: In red tide outbreak, diners and tourists are staying away

Empty tables can be seen at the BRGR Kitchen and Bar, Treasure Island Beach Resort, Wednesday, 9/12/18. Business is off due to the recent reports of Red Tide on Pienllas County beaches. SCOTT KEELER  |   Times
Empty tables can be seen at the BRGR Kitchen and Bar, Treasure Island Beach Resort, Wednesday, 9/12/18. Business is off due to the recent reports of Red Tide on Pienllas County beaches. SCOTT KEELER | Times
Published Sep. 13, 2018

The red tide algae bloom along the Gulf Coast that began in mid-August is the strongest since the 2005-2006 outbreak and also among the longest-lived. News of it came on the heels of reports of blue-green algae in Lake Okeechobee and flowing down the Caloosahatchee River. Both kill fish and both have potentially deleterious health effects in exposed humans.

And both have the power to kill something else: Visitor numbers, hotel occupancy, restaurant sales and the financial security of local business folks who service those industries. In some areas, big fish kills have kept customers away, but in others it's more like tall fish tales.

"We sell all the way to Venice," says Earl Lange, a sales representative at Sammy's Seafood, a wholesaler in St. Petersburg. "It's undoubtedly affected us in terms of selling seafood to restaurants. We're down easily 50 percent or more. News reports of red tide are keeping guests away from the coast en masse, he said, when some places are not even impacted.

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September is a notoriously hard time of year for tourism and food service, with summer vacationers gone and snowbirds not yet here. Add red tide, and the numbers are bleak.

Michael Walsh is the president of Ocean Properties, which owns 42 hotels in Florida. He provided data about occupancy rates that show the magnitude of the red tide's effect.

On September 11 last year, the Treasure Island Beach Resort had 80 rooms rented (100 percent occupancy); this year only 23. Lido Beach Resort had 220 rooms rented for that same night last year, this year 34. Longboat Key Club Resort has 250 rooms rented last year, 32 this year. Sand Castle Resort at Lido Beach: 176 rooms rented last year, 27 this year. He estimates he's lost $2 million so far, with Longboat Key Club Resort the biggest financial drag because it's the biggest and has higher room rates.

Making matters worse, many hotels are still recovering from financial hits during Hurricane Irma. Coupled with red tide, customers are staying away out of fear of the unknown.

"People have a memory," Walsh said. "Unfortunately, everyone panicked last year before the hurricane and evacuated way too early. You can't forecast where red tide is going, but historically it moves slowly to the north. This has stayed in place longer than any red tide in history. We've let people make cancellations without charge."

Walsh's properties have cut 40-hour workers down to 20 and just not called hourly wage earners in to work because the customers aren't there.

For Walt Wickman, who owns Olde Bay Cafe & Dunedin Fish Market and Hog Island Fish Camp, both in Dunedin, it's a conundrum. Taking last year out of the equation (his restaurant sales were zero because of Hurricane Irma), he is down 20 to 30 percent year over year and has had to tighten the belt.

"We are having to cut some labor hours for sure, but I'm also trying to keep our staff members working too so they can get their bills paid."

This is happening, he said, even though there have been no signs of red tide or dead fish in Dunedin thus far.

"There are plenty of baitfish and mullet swimming around, (and we) haven't smelled it or seen any sign of it. But business is slowing down. It's a slow time of year anyhow, that's a big contributor as well."

Frank Chivas, who leads Bay Star Restaurant Group, sees this as the silver lining. Savvy business owners gird their loins for these lean times. Imagine, he says, if the blue-green algae and red tide had occurred in March, in high season, driving visitors and snowbirds away. That doesn't mean there won't be other ill effects of the current situation, he says.

Since the 2014 red tide north of Tarpon Springs, the nursery grounds for red grouper and black grouper, catches for red grouper have diminished substantially every year, the price increasing correspondingly. It's too early to say whether the current red tide will affect finfish nurseries, and thus future prices.

Chivas says prices for Gulf species, at least for now, remain unchanged. And Katie Sosa, co-owner of Sammy's Seafood, says supply numbers for finfish has been unaffected by blue-green algae or red tide.

From local business owners like Chivas, Pinellas County's cleanup efforts and response have been outstanding.

"I went down to the beach this morning at 5:30 and there was very minimal fish on the beach. The county's program has been very aggressive, getting to the fish before it gets to shore. There were people swimming on the beach, walking the beach. It could be a lot worse."

But for Byron Russell, CEO of Cheney Brothers, a regional food distributor that has been severely impacted by diminished restaurant sales, that doesn't necessarily change public opinion.

"Look how far information goes with social media these days. It spreads like wildfire and affects the tourists' decisions. They're not going to come down and spend their money on vacations and business trips. Hopefully it's something we can get our arms around in the future."

Contact Laura Reiley at or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.