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Last call will come early in St. Petersburg and Tampa starting Tuesday as leaders of both cities announced drastic measures to try to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman on Monday issued a sweeping emergency order requiring bars, restaurants, movie theaters, bowling alleys and the Cross Bay Ferry to operate at only 50 percent capacity beginning at noon Tuesday. And until further notice, last call for alcohol in the city will be at 9 p.m.
Liquor licenses will be at risk for establishments that don’t comply, the mayor said. He reserved the right to “move to a complete closure."
“Late night revelry in this city will simply not be allowed,” Kriseman said.
Tampa is also limiting the city’s bars and restaurants to 50 percent occupancy and requiring they close no later than 10 p.m., Mayor Jane Castor announced late Monday. She encouraged affected businesses to apply for a bridge loan to a state disaster fund announced Monday by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
“We are responding proactively and aggressively to protect our community,” Castor said in a Facebook video announcement. “We’re living in an unprecedented time but we will get through this together Tampa, even if it means spending a little time apart.”
Similar restrictions on drinking and dining establishments have been enacted across the U.S., including at least a dozen statewide bans on dining-in. In daily press conferences during the pandemic, DeSantis has indicated that he is happy to leave the decision up to each community.
The restrictions are more bad news for beleaguered bar and restaurant owners on both sides of Tampa Bay. But they at least allow them to keep operating.
Eric Weinstein, the CEO of Zudar’s on W Platt Street in Tampa, said business has been down as much as 50 percent over the past week. Monday’s lunchtime shift was even worse, as he estimated a drop of 80 percent of the usual crowd. He has been able to avoid laying off workers but they have all lost hours, he said.
He said shutting his restaurant down completely would be devastating.
“We want people to do the right thing, sanitize themselves but still come out and patronize us,” he said.
Other restaurants still plan to stay open, but with enhanced cleaning.
The Columbia Restaurant Group, which includes the Columbia, Ulele, Goody Goody and Cha Cha Coconuts, is removing tables and bar stools to seat guests further apart and has switched to a single-use menu.
“This is a difficult time for everyone," said group owner Richard Gonzmart. “We’ll get through this latest crisis the same way we always do — together.”
Stephen Schrutt, who runs the Hunger + Thirst group that operates downtown St. Petersburg bars No Vacancy, The Avenue and Park & Rec, said the mayor’s order means he’ll have to cut staff hours. He said he plans on pivoting to more take-out and third party delivery app services.
“I don’t know what to think,” Schrutt said. “Last week we were drafting up plans for how to be better with sanitation and now it’s how to stay open at half-occupancy. It’s crippling us. It’s just insane — we pray that our employees will be able to survive.”
The majority of the group’s income comes from the bar business, which Schrutt pointed out doesn’t start getting busy until later in the evening: “The bar business starts at 9 p.m. and goes till 3 (a.m.)”
David Benstock, who owns the St. Petersburg Italian restaurant Il Ritorno on Central Avenue, said his staff have been anticipating a city-wide restaurant shutdown for a few days now. The restaurant has already started to pivot to a delivery and take-out-focused model, though for the time being it is still serving guests in-house.
“We figured this was all coming,” Benstock said. “We’ve been following what’s happening in the rest of the world and expecting it to happen here.”
Benstock said he hopes that by pivoting to take out and curb-side delivery they’ll be able to recoup some of their losses and continue to pay their employees. “As long as you park no more than two blocks away, we’ll bring (food) out to your car, gloves on and all. We’re just planning everything day by day.”
Tampa’s restrictions include Hillsborough’s three major entertainment districts, SoHo, Ybor City and the city’s downtown.
But in Pinellas, none of the county’s other 23 cities were ready to follow St. Petersburg’s lead. That means people determined to stay out during the pandemic can take their party to places like Gulfport and St. Pete Beach.
That was despite Pinellas County officials holding a conference call at 2 p.m. Monday with representatives from each municipality to discuss how to handle public outings during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Some on the call were caught off guard by St. Petersburg’s new rules, which Kriseman announced just one hour later.
“Clearly, St. Pete felt it was in its own best interest to do that without any conversation or dialogue with the rest of the county,” said Clearwater City Manager Bill Horne.
In at least one past call with Pinellas leaders, officials had discussed the importance of acting in lockstep to avoid confusing the public, Horne said.
Kriseman told the Tampa Bay Times that he never agreed to that. Pinellas County Administrator Barry Burton noted the mayor called him personally before the conference call to notify him of St. Petersburg’s plans.
To Burton, that was evidence that St. Petersburg was willing to work with the county. Another call with the same officials is scheduled for Tuesday afternoon.
“I certainly hope that others will follow the lead that we’ve taken in St. Petersburg,” Kriseman said. “But I cannot wait for the beach community cities to decide how they want to proceed.”
Times staff writer Helen Freund contributed to this report.
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