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Clearwater eases rules to help businesses after coronavirus shutdown

From relaxed regulations on signs to expanded restaurant seating, city officials say they are trying to help business owners bounce back.

CLEARWATER ⁠— Sign codes have been relaxed to allow “grand reopening” banners. Restaurants are allowed to expand outdoor dining into their parking lots help with social distancing requirements.

And now through Labor Day, businesses can even post sandwich boards, a notoriously banned species of signage that has been debated in the city for decades.

As businesses work to bounce back from shutdowns mandated amid the coronavirus pandemic, the city is implementing a series of policy changes to help with recovery.

The initiatives range from a new program giving small businesses up to $6,000 grants to eliminating fees for late utility payments. The City Council also last week adopted 14 recommendations made by Amplify Clearwater, the local chamber of commerce, although many of the group’s suggestions were already in the works by city staff.

For instance, the city has been working with Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, the area’s tourism entity, to plan coordinated marketing efforts that could attract visitors and attempt to replenish the tourism industry that has been so drastically impacted by the coronavirus outbreak.

Mayor Frank Hibbard said it will be especially critical to shift strategies in attracting different kinds of visitors as the coronavirus lingers. He compared it to tourism trends seen after the 9/11 attacks and in the early years of the Great Recession, when travelers flew less due to safety and financial concerns. As a result, the Clearwater area saw fewer visitors from the Midwest and more from southeastern states within driving-distance.

Members of Amplify will also collaborate with city staff to create a concierge of service professionals that will help small businesses connect with relief funds and online resources.

Before his election March 17, Hibbard began discussions with Amplify leaders about preparing response initiatives for businesses. A task force of about 15 people evolved as a result, including business leaders from hospitality, food service and other industries. Amplify CEO Amanda Payne told council members she expects more collaboration will be needed as businesses adjust to the new economic climate.

“Certainly our businesses face uncertain times of what recovery and reopening looks like for them so I know this will be an ongoing conversation,” Payne said.

The city declined to implement 13 of Amplify’s recommendations, either because City Attorney Pam Akin said they were not legal or city staffers were in the midst of finalizing similar initiatives.

The business group wanted the city to defer rent for city tenants during Pinellas County’s state of emergency, but that would have come at a monthly cost of $340,000 between Clearwater Airpark and Clearwater Beach marina.

Amplify wanted officials to defer the fees businesses pay to operate in the city, but Akin said state law does not give the city that authority. The group also wanted the city to automatically extend the window applicants have to complete projects after securing permits and development orders, which would apply to everything from installing a fence to building a condo.

This too was rejected because Akin said the city does not have authority to automatically extend development orders and city staff said it wasn’t realistic to ask every individual applicant to request the change.

Some of the requests showed a desire for broader reform in the city’s permitting and code processes. Amplify requested the city require staff to note all concerns about planning and building applications on the first review so no pre-existing issues can be raised down the road of a project. The city rejected this because Assistant City Manager Micah Maxwell said staff is already trying to make broader improvements to the process.

Maxwell said the city is also reviewing its code enforcement protocols, so the city also rejected Amplify’s request to have first-time offender fees waived.

Brian Aungst Jr., an attorney who chaired Amplify’s task force, said the group’s suggestions were meant to spark positive interaction and creativity between the city and business community. He told council members it was understood that some ideas "might not work exactly as they were intended to work, but that the intentions were good.”

During lunchtime on Wednesday, diners were taking advantage of the new policy that allows businesses to extend outdoor seating to accommodate social distancing. The city closed the 400 and 500 block of Cleveland Street through May 31, allowing restaurants to put tables and chairs in the street and parking spaces.

Hibbard said the intention is to accommodate businesses to make seating changes citywide, not just downtown.

Friends Jillian Bruckner, owner of Taco Bus, and Alan Mock, publisher of Resort Magazines, ate their pizza at a table set up in what used to be a street parking spot in front of Downtown Pizza Sports Bar and Grill on Cleveland Street.

“This kind of support of local businesses is critical as we move into recovery,” Mock said.

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