CLEARWATER — There’s a glimmer of nightlife in downtown Clearwater.
Sandwiched between North Osceola Avenue and North Garden Avenue along the 400 and 500 blocks of Cleveland Street, patrons gather on a recent weekend for Sip and Stroll, an outdoor food and drink event that has been happening the third Saturday of every month since October 2020. It started as a way for Clearwater restaurants to take advantage of the expanded outdoor seating areas in the now-coined Cleveland Street District that the city permitted during the pandemic.
Musicians occupy the sidewalks and center medians, lights dangle above outdoor seating areas and tables sprawl out onto the street. The additions make for a pleasant spruce up, but reminders of what Cleveland Street was before are still apparent. Cement barricades rear their ugly heads at the end of each block, and parking meters stand tall near tables positioned in spaces cars used to fill.
Outdoor dining areas like this cropped up in the past year around Tampa Bay, a safer alternative to indoor dining during the pandemic. Statewide and local emergency orders allowed cities to grant restaurants permission to expand onto sidewalks and streets without going through the typical legal process.
On April 27, Gov. Ron DeSantis extended Florida’s state of emergency for 60 days, which would make its last day June 26. (The governor suspended all local COVID-19 restrictions on individuals and businesses May 3, but that executive order did not affect the statewide emergency order.) Cities around Tampa Bay have indicated that unless they take further action, their expanded outdoor dining setups would end when the emergency order does.
Clearwater is particularly enthusiastic about continuing the pandemic-induced changes, having used its temporary emergency powers to make the 400 and 500 blocks of Cleveland Street car-free.
Sip and Stroll has been around for nine months now, and pulls in crowds of around 250 people on a regular basis. On a recent weekend, some attendees were participating for their third time, while others drove in from surrounding cities to join for their first. The public sentiment was positive.
A number of local restaurant owners support the closure of the 400 and 500 blocks, including Carolyn Bradham, owner of Kara Lynn’s Kitchen and co-president of the Downtown Clearwater Merchants Association. And they don’t want it to just be temporary.
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“It finally has given us an identity and a place for people to come down and enjoy,” Bradham said.
There were talks of closing the blocks and turning the area into a “European cafe” before the pandemic, said Scott Sousa, general manager at the Clear Sky on Cleveland restaurant and co-president of the Downtown Clearwater Merchants Association.Those talks stalled, but with overwhelming support for the current outdoor model from both restaurant owners and patrons, the Downtown Clearwater Merchants Association and the City of Clearwater stepped in and the city recently extended the street closure until the end of 2021. That’s a hard deadline at this point, and the city will assess what to do with these parts of Cleveland street as the year winds down, said Clearwater assistant city manager Michael Delk.
“We’ll take this time post-pandemic to really get a good feel for any traffic impacts, parking issues, functionality,” Delk said, adding that they have to see how this closure impacts the businesses that aren’t restaurants on the street.
Not every city in Tampa Bay has the same ideas for the future of expanded outdoor dining.
Dunedin will be reverting back to pre-pandemic seating arrangements July 15 due to parking logistics, according to Dunedin Director of Communications Sue Burness.
“We’re saddened that it’s going away. We understand the conflicts the city has,” said Tina Avila, owner of Mexican restaurant Casa Tina in Dunedin. Avila said she is grateful the city allowed for the expansion during the height of the pandemic and said it helped greatly with keeping her restaurant afloat.
St. Petersburg is operating in a similar manner as Clearwater. Restaurants were allowed to apply for a temporary permit for outdoor dining in May that lasts for up to six months, and the city will be discussing whether it will change the code to allow some sort of permanent program at its July 29 City Council meeting. Nineteen restaurants applied for the extension, and three opted not to.
Jeff Schorr, owner of the cafe and art studio Craftsman House on Central Avenue, was one of the three. He felt that his restaurant did not have a need for the additional outdoor seating and that the setup was an eyesore.
Dan Bavaro, owner of Italian restaurant Bavaro’s, registered for an extension.
“I would love for it to be a permanent option upon renewal of our outside dining cafe every year,” Bavaro said. He does not feel that the expanded outdoor dining worked as well at his Bavaro’s location in Tampa.
Tampa has a cutoff date of Sept. 7 for Lift Up Local, the program its outdoor dining expansion falls under, but that date was set under the assumption that Florida would still be under a state of emergency.
“Our hope would be to stretch it to September. If we don’t make it that far because of the lack of emergency order then we will just have to cancel it early unfortunately,” said Carole Post, Tampa’s Administrator for Development and Economic Opportunity.
Post added that once the emergency order is lifted, the city of Tampa will begin a phasing out period for restaurants to revert back to pre-pandemic dining setups.