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Downtown St. Petersburg restaurants face another hurdle: Protests and counter-protests

After video and photos of altercations go viral, restaurant and bar owners say business has suffered.

Steve Westphal doesn’t really want to talk about the video.

The owner of downtown St. Petersburg’s Parkshore Grill doesn’t want another detailing of the incident in front of his restaurant, something he thinks will just add more fuel to the fire. What he does want is to tell people that downtown St. Pete is safe — and that diners don’t have to fear that recent events will repeat themselves.

By now, the video showing a tense exchange between diners and protesters outside Parkshore Grill on Sept. 23 has been widely publicized. So have photos of counter-protesters waving American flags and a man wielding a gun at a separate event a few days later.

Most business owners say the events were isolated incidents. But the optics have created an image that many fear will drive diners away at a time when they need business the most.

Many restaurant and bar owners in the downtown St. Petersburg area, including Westphal, said the video and photos circulated had an immediate and adverse affect on their businesses. The phones started ringing. Reservations were canceled. Diners appeared increasingly concerned about their safety. And all of this after about six months of the coronavirus pandemic, when business owners are just now beginning to regain some of their footing.

The downtown protests have been a regular occurrence since the May 25 death of George Floyd, who died in custody of Minneapolis Police. Most business owners in St. Petersburg have welcomed what they say have been overwhelmingly peaceful demonstrations against police brutality and racial injustice. Over the past few months, the size of the group had dwindled, but larger crowds started showing up on Sept. 23, when a grand jury chose not to indict Louisville police officers in the shooting death of Breonna Taylor.

Related: A tense scene between demonstrators and diners

Westphal isn’t the only business owner reporting an uptick in concerns from his clientele following the events. Rick Maddon, the general manager at Datz’s St. Petersburg location, said he continues to get phone calls from customers asking about the protests and whether it’s safe to come out and dine. Ted Dorsey, who owns the Mill on Central Avenue, said his reservations for this Saturday are practically nonexistent. And Tony Mangiafico, who owns the popular bar and lounge Flute & Dram on Beach Drive NE, said he’s noted a roughly 40 percent drop in his sales from the week before.

“That’s a significant amount of money,” Mangiafico said. “Especially when we’re struggling after (COVID-19) and struggling to keep our employees working.”

For safety reasons, outdoor dining has become popular during the coronavirus pandemic, which on Beach Drive NE means customers often sit in close proximity to the streets where protests have taken place. This hasn’t always been an issue, but following the events on Sept. 23, some owners say they’ve experienced reluctance from al fresco-friendly diners.

“Being on Beach Drive, everyone wants to sit outside, and now they don’t want to sit outside because they’re worried,” Mangiafico said. “You’re at a nice place having a drink, dinner with your wife, your girlfriend, whatever — you don’t want to be harassed.”

The events come on the heels of Florida’s Phase 3 reopening and the lifting of coronavirus restrictions on bars and restaurants. Many in the industry have said they hope the reopening will foster more confidence in diners and help recoup some of the losses from the past six months. But the recent backlash from the protests and counter-protests feels like another blow.

“We’ve done so much for our customers to make them feel safe,” said Ryan Griffin, who owns the Central Avenue craft cocktail bar Mandarin Hide. “Just when the governor says we’re at 100 percent, on top of it now consumers are saying that they don’t feel comfortable going out in downtown St. Pete."

Because recent events were shared so widely on social media — the video of the diners at Parkshore Grill amassed more than three million views — some fear it has created an image of downtown St. Petersburg that is not demonstrative of reality.

“A lot of it has to do with how information travels,” said Chris Steinocher, the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce CEO. “I want to make sure we really understand perception versus reality — when perception gets away from reality is when you get this concern for safety.”

For the past week, Steinocher said his office has been fielding a huge influx of calls from would-be tourists and visitors across the country voicing concerns about what they saw or heard online.

“We’re a destination for travelers ... so that’s harmful for all of us. It is very clear that there is no major issue going on here. We don’t need anybody’s guns to come downtown — we don’t need any extra help.”

Related: Emotions run hot about protests in City Council meeting

Meanwhile, Facebook groups and online dining forums are full of comments from residents and potential diners expressing concern about going out. Posts quickly spiral out of control and are rife with vitriol. If masks were the politically charged topic among diners over the summer, the protests and counter-protests narrative has now taken its place.

Last week’s events also temporarily volleyed some business owners into heated discussions with local leaders. An email chain addressed to Mayor Rick Kriseman shared with the Tampa Bay Times shows several tense exchanges between downtown restaurant and bar owners as they complained of a lack of police presence during the most recent incidents.

“There is not one person in our group that doesn’t support people’s right to peacefully protest,” wrote the Mill’s Ted Dorsey. “But it was made immediately clear that these protesters weren’t in our city to peacefully assemble. They were accosting anyone within striking distance from the moment they arrived. We were forced to stand guard to protect our patrons as well as our businesses.”

Dorsey said on the night of Sept. 26, when live videos showed a man aiming a gun at protesters, he and some fellow restaurant owners followed the group for roughly two hours but said they did not see any police present. During a joint Zoom call with the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday, police chief Anthony Holloway said police officers were on the ground monitoring protests, including Saturday’s, but weren’t always visible. He said that will change, and that there will be an increased police presence this coming weekend.

Related: St. Petersburg chief says officers should have found man with gun

“Small business is the heart and soul of our city, and our restaurants are a big part of that,” Kriseman said in an emailed statement to the Tampa Bay Times. “We are committed to ensuring the safety of our residents and visitors, including those dining outdoors. We encourage everyone to respect each other’s rights.”

Dorsey said the protests in general haven’t created any kind of issue for his restaurant, but that after last week’s events, he’s felt a noticeable shift. Coupled with the economic hardship levied by the pandemic, he said he feared for the survival of his and other businesses in the area. Because the protests are usually held at night, bars and restaurants in the area are the most vulnerable, he said.

“Restaurants are hurting so bad as it is right now,” he said. “We already have these problems down here. Even going to 100 percent doesn’t mean anything — people are still scared."

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