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Are Tampa and St. Petersburg keeping their distance?

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor lauded residents for staying apart, while St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman chastised people for crowding. The difference? It might be the parks.
Tampa residents enjoy time outside on Wednesday, April 1, 2020 in Tampa. Bayshore blvd is one of the few public spaces open to the public after the City of Tampa enacted the Safer At Home order urging residents to stay home.
Tampa residents enjoy time outside on Wednesday, April 1, 2020 in Tampa. Bayshore blvd is one of the few public spaces open to the public after the City of Tampa enacted the Safer At Home order urging residents to stay home. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Apr. 4, 2020

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Both Pinellas and Hillsborough counties are under safer-at-home orders. And as of Friday morning, so is Florida.

But do those orders, which impose limitations on group gatherings and mandate social distancing in order to slow the spread of the coronavirus, work?

The orders don’t force people to stay inside; in fact, they encourage folks to walk their pets and get the exercise and sunshine they need to stay healthy and sane. They limit congregation by closing or canceling many of the places and events people like to congregate — bars, restaurants, arenas, coffee shops and weddings, just to name a few.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman recently chastised his residents for not abiding by the Pinellas County order. During a Facebook Live appearance Monday, he threatened citations were coming to those who shirked the rule limiting gatherings to no more than 10.

In her own Facebook Live appearance later Monday, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor gave her constituents a pat on the back for adhering to Hillsborough’s order. She said she drove around her city last weekend and didn’t see large crowds.

“We haven’t had any major problems," she said. “The vast majority of individuals are cooperating.”

Castor’s spokeswoman, Ashley Bauman, said the cities’ individual economic landscapes may account for the difference.

“All communities adapt differently," Bauman said. “Tampa has a large business district which helps facilitate the safer-at-home order quite swiftly where St. Pete is heavily tourism-based.”

Another difference between the cities is their strategy surrounding parks.

The state’s order is silent on closing parks, leaving that decision to individual municipalities. Hillsborough County and Tampa closed their parks, except for the Riverwalk that winds around downtown and the wide path along Bayshore Boulevard, both popular jogging and walking spots. Pinellas and St. Petersburg have chosen to leave their parks open, allowing residents and visitors access to the county’s and city’s greatest natural assets.

But with many forced to stay home and few outside entertainment options available, the parks can become attractions rather than escapes. Those who treated the parks that way drew Kriseman’s ire.

He said people were playing football, having picnics and climbing on playground and fitness equipment that had been fenced off. The parks are open for exercise, he reiterated, and asked residents to visit their neighborhood parks rather than cluttering at the waterfront. He threatened to close parks if people continued to misbehave.

“If you stop following the order that’s in place,” Kriseman said Monday, “then you’ll give us no choice.”

A Kriseman spokesman later said the mayor doesn’t think closing the parks would make the safer-at-home order more successful, as residents “have generally used (parks) wisely.”

On a sunny, breezy Thursday afternoon, the lawn at Vinoy Park along St. Petersburg’s waterfront was mostly empty. Don and Sue Sieber, retirees from Buffalo, N.Y., sat under the shade on chairs and a blanket. They were grateful the park remained open.

“It’s about the only thing we can do,” said Don Sieber, 72. “At least we can do this.”

Far from anyone, they looked out toward the water, the park’s running path in the foreground. That’s where the activity was.

The path was where it was most difficult to keep distance. With bikers, runners, walkers and more than a few rollerbladers all going different speeds, it was impossible to pass without coming close.

It was in contrast to Bayshore Boulevard, Tampa’s waterfront path. On a perfect Wednesday afternoon, childhood friends Curtis Hilton, 27, and Brianna Castillo, 25, took a break from their bike ride on a bench along a mostly empty stretch.

As the occasional bicyclist and jogger passed, Hilton, who works as a landscaper, said the relative emptiness of Bayshore surprised him. “It wasn’t as busy as I thought,” he said.

Monday, Castor praised Tampa residents for using Bayshore and the Riverwalk in moderation.

“I’m very, very pleased with the response from our community," Castor said. "They understand the gravity of the situation.”

In St. Petersburg, people relaxed under the sabal canopy at Vinoy Park but maintained at least six feet of distance. That’s where the Lopez family sat. They came to the waterfront hoping to see dolphins again after seeing them on Tuesday.

They thought there would be more space in roomy Vinoy Park. Seminole Park in Kenwood, they said, has been packed.

“I’ve been eagle-eyed about people getting close,” said Sara Lopez, 41, who with her husband, Michael, runs several Carmelita’s restaurants.

Rob Quilliam and fiance Anna Perdomo came from their home on Harbour Island in Tampa to enjoy the St. Petersburg waterfront. They’ve been staying indoors, getting food delivered and keeping their distance from others. But they’ve been enjoying the nice weather in their convertible, finding different outdoor refuges.

Quilliam, 54, who imports plywood and flooring from China, said he knows about the Hillsborough and Pinellas orders limiting movement to essential needs. “But there are cars that go back and forth across that bridge everyday,” he said.

In hammocks hanging from the trees were a group of St. Petersburg High sophomores. They’ve been hanging out together for weeks, and three of them work together at Chik-fil-A, so their parents said they could continue socializing as long as they didn’t expose themselves to new people.

“I just want to go back to school,” said Lauren Richard, 16. “I want everything to be normal.”

St. Peterburg’s Seminole Park, Childs Park and Wildwood Park were empty during the Thursday evening twilight. But the skate park in Campbell Park was bustling.

Mike Honcho, 24, and Billy Cooper, 20, tinkered with their BMX bikes in the parking lot before dropping in. Honcho works for a moving company and still has a job. Cooper, who works at an after-school Tae Kwon Do program, lost his. “When there’s no school, there’s no work,” Cooper said. He’s been filling his time on his bike.

“Not listening to the government,” he said. “It’s either BMX or punch a wall, and I got tired of punching a wall.”

That’s the plan going forward: “Keep on shredding until they kick us out, and then do some rebel runs until they kick us out again,” Honcho said.

In East Tampa, the closing of parks didn’t weight heavily on a group of young girls and their aunt in the breezeway of the Belmont Heights Estates III apartments.

“It hasn’t been too tough,” said Jemaris Thomas, who watched over Karlei Anderson, 12, Vandi Anderson, 11 and Neariah Bryant, 8.

Karlei Anderson was unfazed by the park closures. “I don’t even like being outside,” she deadpanned.

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