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Tampa Bay businesses step up to help others survive coronavirus

One company decided to forgo collecting rent in April. Two others started making hand sanitizer to give away.

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These are trying times, the kind that bring out the worst in us. But the turmoil also reveals a better side. Acts of humanity perpetrated without fanfare — selfless, sometimes anonymous, often inspiring.

A neighbor mows a nurse’s lawn, knowing she’s working another double shift at the hospital. A stranger scrounges up a couple of rolls of toilet paper for the elderly man with a sick wife at home.

Businesses get in on the act. The good ones offer extra leave to sick employees. They pay contractors, even though they can’t work. They give out bonuses to help pay for groceries.

Scott Sherman, co-founder and managing principal of Tricera Capital. [Tricera Capital]

Scott Sherman is a landlord. His company, Tricera Capital, owns about 10 buildings around Central Avenue in St. Petersburg, along with others in Tampa and South Florida. Rent payments are the lifeblood of his business. If tenants don’t pay, Tricera could struggle.

But Sherman knew the crisis was crushing his retail tenants, including the Latin eatery Bodega, Pacific Counter, Enigma Bar & Lounge, and Maple Street Biscuit Company. The state had closed bars and limited the number of patrons in restaurants. Now, they can only serve take-out. He felt he had to do something, so he decided not to collect rent for April.

Along Central Avenue annual rents have reached $45 to $50 a square foot. A small 2,000-square-foot sit-down restaurant, for instance, would pay $100,000 a year.

“We could see how much the businesses were hurting,” he said. “This felt like it would help.”

Tricera is in good financial shape, but it’s not a huge corporation with billions of dollars in cash lying around. The company is allowing the retailers to spread the April rent over the end of their leases. By then, Sherman knows some of them might not be in business. He also knows that if restaurants, bars and shops stay closed — or severely curtailed — for long, Tricera will suffer.

Is he worried that his financial gesture could contribute to hardship at his own company?

“We’ll worry about that six months from now,” he said.

Bodega co-owner George Sayegh appreciated the relief. He and his wife had to close all three of their locations on Thursday. Not having to worry about a rent payment will soften the blow. On Saturday, he was figuring how to safely give away thousands of dollars worth of perishable food to his 60 employees.

“It helps with morale to know that they care enough to suspend the rent," he said. “You know it will hurt them financially, but they did it anyway.”

The governor ordered all gyms to close Friday, but that hasn’t stopped CrossFit 9 on Sixth Avenue S in St. Petersburg from coming up with a creative way to help retailers. The gym is promoting a “Community Hero Virtual Race.” Racers sign up online and choose their own 5- or 10-kilometer route. Post a finish line picture and the gym will use the $20 or $30 entry fee to buy gift certificates to local shops and restaurants. It will raffle off the certificates to race participants.

3 Daughters Brewing in St. Petersburg used its equipment to make free hand sanitizer. Kozuba & Sons Distillery is doing the same and vowed to donate a large portion of the initial production to first responders, medical facilities and community organizations.

Valley Bank, with 17 offices in the Tampa Bay area, has increased limits on debit and credit cards. Clients who have a loan with the bank can get interest and principal payments deferred for three months. In many cases, the bank is also waiving overdraft fees and early withdrawal penalties for anyone who has to tap a certificate of deposit for emergency purposes.

Joseph Chillura, chief retail and business banking officer at Valley Bank. [Valley Bank]

In the Tampa Bay area, businesses make up about three-quarters of the bank’s clients, said Joseph Chillura, a senior executive vice president and chief retail and business banking officer.

“It's important that we provide assistance and a backstop for people when things get tough,” he said. “We are part of the community and the community needs help.”

Talk to the people and businesses lending a hand and you’ll hear a similar theme.

People are hurting.

We’re in this together.

We could be them.

I couldn’t just stand by.

It’s easy to go into survival mode when the world feels like it’s coming apart. I’m looking at you, toilet paper hoarder. It’s also easy to get jaded. Banks should help out, critics say. Landlords, too. Yes, they should do their part, if they have the means. But during hard times, it’s not so easy to put the interests of others ahead of our own.

The businesses in this column felt compelled to act. They did the right thing because it felt like the right thing to do. Kudos to them.

Note to readers: Do you know of a business or organization that is going above and beyond to help out? Please send their stories to gbrink@tampabay.com.

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