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Coronavirus dominates St. Petersburg’s first virtual City Council meeting

In their first meeting since the crisis started, one council member wanted to talk about reopening the economy. Mayor Rick Kriseman said it’s too soon for that.
St. Petersburg City Council members conduct their Thursday meeting via Zoom. It was the first time the body met since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis in Florida.
St. Petersburg City Council members conduct their Thursday meeting via Zoom. It was the first time the body met since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis in Florida. [ JOSH SOLOMON | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Apr. 16, 2020|Updated Apr. 16, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG — The City Council met for the first time since the coronavirus crisis began in earnest in Florida, utilizing video conferencing service Zoom to practice social distancing among council members and the public.

The meeting went mostly without a hitch — there were no “Zoom bombs” and only a few instances in which unbearable lag or echos brought the meeting to a halt — and everyone who needed to participate was able to do so.

Unsurprisingly, the coronavirus and the city’s response to the pandemic dominated the meeting. Mayor Rick Kriseman opened the meeting with an update on what action the city has taken to curb the spread of the virus among residents and employees, his first formal briefing to council since the crisis began.

Related: St. Petersburg’s tennis courts and dog parks to close for social distancing

Council chair Ed Montanari sought to frame the discussion in terms of reopening the economy. He proposed holding a committee meeting April 30 to discuss how the city could eventually roll back restrictions that have closed businesses and kept would-be consumers in their homes.

“I believe it’s time to start thinking about how do we start putting our economy back online," he said.

Kriseman pumped the brakes on that notion. He said the city will soon start planning for that, but there is no timeline for reopening the city: "When we pull the trigger on it, we can’t put a time on that right now.”

There has to be a consistent drop in the number of new cases discovered over a matter of weeks, the mayor said, before the city can think about loosening restrictions.

“I’m certainly not comfortable restarting," Kriseman said. "Because the biggest mistake we could make is restart, and then a month later, have to stop again.”

The mayor said he will be putting together an advisory council to help figure out how, and when, to allow businesses to reopen.

The city currently does not have a safer-at-home order in place; St. Petersburg residents are under a Pinellas County order. Should the county loosen its restrictions, though, Kriseman could impose a city-wide order of some kind.

Related: Pinellas, St. Petersburg create COVID-19 ‘strike team’

City officials also briefed council members on the Fighting Chance Fund, a grant program created to help small businesses and their employees during the pandemic. It is funded by $6.8 million in Hurricane Irma reimbursements from the federal government. The fund grants eligible businesses $5,000 and their employees $500.

When the applications came out April 9, businesses were eligible if they were restaurants or bars or in the retail and service industries, employed fewer than 25 workers, had been in business more than year, were independently owned by city residents and could prove a loss of revenue due to the coronavirus.

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That criteria excluded many businesses. Kriseman announced earlier this week that the restrictions will loosen starting April 30. The new requirements grant eligibility to travel agencies, businesses that have been opened at least six months, and businesses that are otherwise eligible even if their owner doesn’t live in St. Petersburg.

The new rules also allow employees of eligible businesses access to grant money, even if those employees don’t live within the city.

But the broadened requirements still don’t include locally-owned franchises like the Savory Spice Shop and Paciugo Gelato & Caffè. Downtown Business Association President Tami Simms called into the meeting on Thursday to advocate for those businesses, saying they contribute to the city’s “flavor” and economy by employing local workers.

Related: St. Pete business grants in response to coronavirus shutdown don’t include everyone

City development director Alan DeLisle said the issue of franchises is tricky, because "when you talk about franchises, you also talk about your McDonald’ses and Burger Kings, and your corporate backed franchises as well.”

“We knew there were going to be some difficult decisions," DeLisle told council members. “In the end, we decided to try to fund as many companies as we possibly could, with the resources that we had," but not make the eligibility requires so broad the city ran out of money.

As of Wednesday afternoon, the city said it had received 2,224 applications for grants from 1,311 individuals and 931 businesses. So far, the city has approved 43 business grants and 261 employee grants who will receive a total of $300,000.

But less than 50 percent of the applications have been approved, DeLisle said, which means the majority of businesses that have applied aren’t eligible. Loosening the rules will improve that number. But the city is also keeping track of applicants who don’t qualify and hopes to include them in future grants. The city has also begun fundraising to supplement the initial $6.8 million investment.

On top of that, council members voted to advance a measure that would open up dollars collected through the city’s three community redevelopment areas for coronavirus relief to businesses and residents within those areas. Council members will vote on the final measure on May 7.

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