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Coronavirus spurs volunteer bicycle brigade to deliver for Tampa restaurants

As businesses face additional restrictions, volunteers are helping Seminole Heights eateries get meals to patrons.

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TAMPA — On a Thursday evening that may have typically seen a bustling outdoor dining area, Devon Brady and his 12-year-old son Miles, stood outside the Independent Bar and Cafe where a few people sat at tables interspersed far apart. They attached milk crates to their bikes, waiting for orders to flow in.

The Heights Citizen Bicycle Brigade was about to launch its second day of operations, delivering food from local businesses to neighborhood residents.

Brady owns Livework Studios, a Seminole Heights business focused on research, production and design. Over the years, he said, he’s come to know many of the business owners along Florida Avenue, as the neighborhood has experienced a rebirth with an infusion of new businesses. He’s helped many of the restaurants expand with build outs. His day job, however, is as a captain of a Hillsborough County Fire Rescue unit.

When crisis hit, Brady knew he had to help. Many local businesses, he realized, would need help to come up with new ways to survive, as most didn’t have delivery systems in place. On Friday, the governor ordered all restaurants to close with the exception of takeout and delivery services.

Related: RELATED: Coronavirus Florida: Governor orders all restaurants closed except for takeout, delivery service

“I figured I’m pretty good at setting up command structures and dispatching people pretty efficiently,” he said with a laugh. “It’s a pretty supportive community, and we all try to help each other out as it is.”

Brady’s idea was to create a delivery system. Businesses interested in participating could tell patrons to ask for delivery by bike and email him with orders, and he would create a team of volunteer bicyclists to pick up the orders from the restaurants and deliver them for free. He said he hoped it would help both businesses as well as the elderly in the community who rely on outside services.

Currently, the Mermaid Tavern, Jug & Bottle, Hampton Station, King of the Coop, New World Brewery, Rene’s Mexican Kitchen, Seminole Heights General Store, Whatever Pops, Ella’s, Heights Seafood, Front Porch, Mekenita Cantina, Harvest Bowl and King of the Coop are participating.

Right now, Brady said, it’s a low-tech system that connects volunteers with parts of the neighborhood they want to go to. Later, he said, he hopes to enable location-based technology.

He created a Facebook group for interested volunteers. More than 100 joined. On the first night, about eight showed up.

Veronica Danko, owner of the Independent, was one of them. She delivered two meals the first night herself.

The Independent, she said, has taken the situation very seriously and is following the guidelines of the CDC carefully. But that’s already been difficult for business, despite selling gift cards and offering curbside pickup. On Friday, the Independent posted on social media, they were closing up shop for the time being.

Related: RELATED: How are Tampa Bay restaurants dealing with coronavirus? One day at a time.

“It’s devastating,” Danko said on Thursday about the impacts of the virus on local businesses, blinking back tears. “You have all these people who have been here for years.”

The Brigade, she said, speaks to the spirit of the community that usually filled her establishment and their desire to support employees.

“No matter what it is, whether it’s a hurricane or serial killer or downed economic times or a pandemic, we always come together and help,” she said.

Brady’s son, Miles, wore a mask on Thursday, which his father said he just enjoyed wearing in general.

“I like riding bikes,” Miles said. “And just the idea of helping transport things to people who need them.”

Al Peterson, another member of the brigade who has lived in Seminole Heights for the past decade, said he’s joined to ride his bike as well as support the community.

“We love our neighborhood hangouts and the people that own them,” he said. “We want to see all our friends make it in this neighborhood.”

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