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Tampa’s Clean Team tracks arc of coronavirus in trash and graffiti

The crew that keeps downtown sparkling has noticed that things are starting to pick up again.

TAMPA — You can tell a lot about a city from the trash it leaves behind.

For 14 years, Julio Montalvo has charted the ups and downs of downtown Tampa’s evolution while guiding the Tampa Downtown Partnership’s Clean Team. His crew of 15 pressure-washes the sidewalks, cares for more than 200 planters, and makes things disappear — dog poop, graffiti, trash.

Nearly eight weeks ago, as the coronavirus pandemic gripped Tampa, Montalvo watched downtown sidewalks and parking spaces go empty overnight. Trash declined and changed from wine bottles and food wrappers to rubber gloves and makeshift face coverings.

Now, Montalvo said, the trash cans are filling up again, the empty parking spaces getting scarcer. Life is itching to return to the city.

“You can look around and there’s no parking on the street now," he said. "It was empty before but now, this week, you see more cars on the street, you see a few more cars in the parking lot, and I noticed the trash going up, the cans filling up quicker.”

Montalvo and his crews have continued to work through the pandemic, picking up roughly 60 bags of trash every day from downtown’s 1,100-acre footprint. For the most part, they’ve had the streets to themselves.

Their rough estimate is that downtown’s skyscrapers and business bunkers have operated at about 20 percent capacity under Hillsborough County’s “safer-at-home” orders. With the decision by Gov. Ron DeSantis to reopen the state this week, they expect to see 50 percent capacity by the end of May.

The Tampa Downtown Partnership helped set up colorful outdoor tables across a three-block area that has been closed to traffic under Mayor Jane Castor’s Lift Up Local initiative. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

The Downtown Partnership had to furlough its other team of helpers — the khaki-clad ambassadors who give directions, jump-start car batteries and offer all manner of aid. They’ll return to work Monday, said Shaun Drinkard, a senior director with the partnership.

“Before, they’d get stopped in the street by people asking, ‘What can I do downtown?’” Drinkard said. “Now, that question has taken on a whole new meaning. We’ll be helping people figure out what life is going to look like now, and our hope is that we can provide a level of normalcy so that no matter how life changes for all of us, people can come back to an inviting place and relate to the same downtown they’ve always loved.”

The Clean Team spent much of this week helping Drinkard turn eight city streets, three city blocks, into al-fresco dining areas for downtown’s restaurants. There is outdoor seating for up to 350 diners, with wooden picnic tables shaded by colorful umbrellas — at least six feet apart — strings of white lights hanging from street signs, and concrete barriers softened with large planters of colorful blooms.

Related: Will Tampa Bay's craft beer scene survive the coronavirus pandemic?

The dining areas are open for a two-week pilot period under Tampa Mayor Jane Castor’s Lift Up Local initiative.

Drinkard said a highlight of his 10 years with the partnership was seeing couples enjoying a date night again.

“It was like, just for a moment, life was normal and exciting and promising again."

Weeks of cleaning quiet streets have made Clean Team member Willie Daniels, 67, even more grateful for his job. He’s been seeing new faces among the familiar downtown homeless population, a sign of the toll the coronavirus has taken on employment and the economy.

“Because we’re working, you understand, we don’t have to go through the trials and tribulations these people are going through so it’s an A plus for us," Daniels said.

Related: Tampa closes streets, opens space for restaurant seating

The Clean Team has always enjoyed its role as unofficial anthropologists, Montalvo said. Graffiti is one measure of a community’s direction, he said, and he noticed an uptick once the coronavirus forced schools to close and students to learn at home.

It’s not the kind of graffiti the team is used to seeing, the work of artists and experienced taggers, but a shaky, single-color, illegible scrawl four or five feet up a wall — “amateur hour,” Montalvo said.

“It’s always, 'School sucks, coronavirus sucks, everything sucks,’” Montalvo said.

But while the nature of the graffiti has changed, the number of graffiti cleanups declined from 50 or 60 in a typical month to just 10 in April, he said.

“We don’t let it sit one day. We’re right on top of them, and now that the city is so empty, they don’t have anywhere to hide. They stick out like a sore thumb.”

Thank you to our essential workers (the TDP Clean Team) for keeping #TampasDowntown clean and safe during this tough...

Posted by Tampa's Downtown on Thursday, May 7, 2020

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