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Tampa Bay businesses feel Red Tide's sting: 'Our sales are going to be our lowest ever'

John's Pass Village boardwalk was void of visitors at noon on Monday Sept. 17. A strong odor of dead fish from Red Tide wafted through the air. Thousands of dead fish floated on the surface of John's Pass nearby. [SCOTT KEELER  |  TIMES]
John's Pass Village boardwalk was void of visitors at noon on Monday Sept. 17. A strong odor of dead fish from Red Tide wafted through the air. Thousands of dead fish floated on the surface of John's Pass nearby. [SCOTT KEELER | TIMES]
Published Sep. 18, 2018

TREASURE ISLAND — For the first time during her 15 years bartending at Caddy's on the Beach, Amanda Hudson had to help close shop early this past weekend because the smell of dead fish coming from the gulf was too putrid to bear.

"We had to shut down for the benefit of the customers and the staff," she said. "The wind was coming in from the west and tide came in high. It was horrific."

Red Tide, an algae bloom toxic to fish and other marine life, has been spreading through Tampa Bay waters since last week. Its reign has brought an onslaught of dead fish to the coast, and local beach businesses are feeling the sting.

Pinellas County's Economic Development Office says so far it has received 15 inquiries from businesses considering the state's emergency bridge loan program to help them get through the bout of Red Tide, which has no clear end in sight.

Previous coverage: Red Tide has swept into the Intracoastal Waterway, littering parks and canals with dead fish

Five local businesses had completed the application for the loan program as of Monday, according to the county.

Meanwhile, the governor on Tuesday designated $1.3 million from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to go to Pinellas County. In total, the governor has pledged $13 million in grants to help affected counties battle and clean up after the bloom.

After wind patterns changed on Monday, Hudson and her coworker were able to reopen Caddy's. The smell wasn't nearly as abrasive on the bar and grill's stretch of Treasure Island. But business was far from thriving.

Hudson said she gets at least 40 calls a day of people asking her what it's like on the beach before making the drive. People ask about the smell, if it will make them cough or their eyes sting.

Red Tide can cause respiratory irritation, especially for people already dealing with asthma.

RELATED:Clues to combating Red Tide are found in mounting manatee carcasses.

On John's Pass in Madeira Beach, Dylan Hubbard, the co-owner of Hubbard's Marina, suspended dolphin watching cruises on Monday, but resumed them Tuesday. He said the few tourists staying near the beaches are desperate for things to do on the water — even with the smell.

On the boardwalk facing water, Kilwins was still scooping ice cream and selling chocolates Tuesday. Employee Markei Zelazo said she had fewer than a dozen customers between 11 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. the day before.

"Whenever anyone comes in, they say it smells so good in here," she said, with the scent of sweet confections a welcome shift from the rot outside.

Businesses off the water are feeling the hurt, too. Claudia Johnson owns Mexican restaurant Grand Hacienda on Gulf Boulevard in St. Pete Beach.

"Although the month of September is always slow, this is something else," Johnson said.

She said by mid-August, before Red Tide got to Tampa Bay from Sarasota, business was already dropping.

"Tourists were already scared," she said. "Our sales are going to be our lowest ever and our employees depend on us as their sole income."

Visitors such as Sarah Williams, 28, have turned to shopping as a way to spend their vacation time without braving a rank beach.

The Ohio native spent Monday afternoon sipping a wine slushie and browsing at John's Pass. She and her two friends were able sneak one day in at Clearwater Beach before it, too, was overrun with dead sea life.

More: Pinellas County continues fight Red Tide

"At least I'm not home," she said. "So, that's a win."

Not a lot of visitors have Williams' optimism.

At least 14 hotels have begun sharing cancellation data with the county's tourism arm, Visit St. Petersburg-Clearwater. The reported losses have ranged up to hundreds of thousands of dollars, said the county agency's spokesman Leroy Bridges.

But a hard numbers-to-numbers comparison is tough to calculate because year-ago numbers are skewed from Hurricane Irma's impact, Bridges said. The September 2017 storm not only led to widespread evacuations, but prolonged power outages.

Hotels in evacuated areas had to close their doors; some in non-evacuation zones were booked solid with evacuees. Some businesses like Grand Hacienda and Hubbard's Marina were shut down for three weeks.

The difference this time is no one knows how long Red Tide will last and continue to dampen the tourism economy.

The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity has yet to send over documentation that will give the Small Business Administration what it needs to extend its low-interest disaster funding to Pinellas, said SBA spokesman Jack Camp.

The bridge loans the county is offering now hold businesses over until that happens. Oddly enough, Hillsborough County has already been approved for that federal money because of its proximity to Manatee County, which was added earlier this month, Camp said.

The Florida agency said its still collecting data from Pinellas County businesses to send to SBA. The state is asking affected businesses to fill out a damages survey at FloridaDisaster.biz.

Johnson, the owner of the Mexican restaurant, just filled out the bridge loan application this week. She hopes to use the money to cover payroll.

"We had no one come in for lunch," she said Tuesday.

Those in the tourism industry are fearful — loans or not.

Beach businesses rely on a surge come winter. Usually people are booking those trips now. Come October, Johnson said she usually notices an uptick in European visitors.

"That's only two weeks away," she said.

Contact Sara DiNatale at sdinatale@tampabay.com. Follow @sara_dinatale.

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