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In East Tampa, South St. Petersburg, reopening is tentative

The first week of partial reopening sees retail and restaurant business adopting a cautious approach.
Costumers wait for their to-go orders at Big John's Alabama BBQ on Wednesday, May 6, 2020 in Tampa.
Costumers wait for their to-go orders at Big John's Alabama BBQ on Wednesday, May 6, 2020 in Tampa. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published May 10, 2020

At Big John’s Alabama Bar-B-Que in East Tampa this week, a steady lunchtime crowd stood in line outside the 52-year-old establishment as a masked employee took orders behind a plastic-screened walk-up window. It’s a now-familiar ritual after nearly two months of life in the coronavirus pandemic.

Although Gov. Ron DeSantis’ proposal to gradually reopen the state allows restaurants to serve customers inside at 25 percent of maximum capacity, and the city has encouraged restaurants to set up outdoor seating in parking lots, the family-owned business preferred a wait-and-see attitude.

“Just like we cook our barbecue, we’re going to take our time,” said Corey Miller, grandson of the founders who helps run the restaurant.

The shutdown hasn’t been easy. But steady walk-up traffic from devoted customers at the restaurant at 5707 N 40th St. has helped avoid layoffs and allowed Big John’s to provide hundreds of free hot meals to local children who aren’t getting them at school.

“It’s not as bad as I thought it would be, but it still hurt us,“ said Miller, surrounded by stacked chairs in what is normally a bustling restaurant. "Our customers have truly, truly been loyal to us.”

Over in St. Petersburg’s mostly African-American neighborhoods south of Central Avenue, Carolyn Brayboy felt the same.

Brayboy, with her husband Elihu, owns Chief’s Creole Cafe at 901 22nd St. S. in the historic “Deuces” neighborhood. The cafe has a large outdoor seating area, but for now, Brayboy said the restaurant will continue take-out service only.

“We’ll just wait and see how it goes,” she said.

As the first week of reopening drew to a close, the cautious attitude was common in less affluent minority neighborhoods on both sides of the bay. A survey conducted by the Tampa Bay Partnership found 68 percent of African-American residents remained “very concerned” about COVID-19 compared to about half of Tampa Bay residents overall. Black residents were also twice as likely to be concerned about losing their jobs than Tampa Bay respondents overall — a factor which also plays into consumer spending in minority neighborhoods.

“Most people are just being cautiously optimistic," said Ernest Coney Jr., the chief executive of CDC of Tampa Inc., a housing and social services non-profit based in East Tampa. "This time is also creating a lot of mental health anguish as well as economic anguish on people. Hopefully this approach will be to open slow and cautiously.”

And even when businesses have reopened, people haven’t been showing up. In the Eastgate shopping plaza on East Hillsborough Avenue, only one customer had appeared by 1 p.m. Tuesday to buy a pair of gloves at Hi-Style, a formal dresswear shop.

A few storefronts down, a small group of customers browsed sneakers and accessories at Shoe Mountain, but manager John Camara said business was down at least 80 percent from before the coronavirus pandemic began in March.

“It’s slow. Real slow,” Camara said.

St. Petersburg’s southern neighborhoods were struggling to maintain a retail base before the virus struck, and many businesses remain shuttered. To help residents and businesses weather the economic damage, Mayor Rick Kriseman’s administration launched the Fighting Chance fund, which has approved hundreds of thousands of dollars in aid to those neighborhoods, according to data provided by the city.

Tampa has launched a similar fund, One Tampa, part of which is designed to help struggling businesses in the city’s poorest neighborhoods. That effort has reached East Tampa more than any other low-income zone, said Carole Post, the city’s administrator for development and economic opportunity.

East Tampa businesses have received 44 grants averaging about $2,000 to cover rent, mortgages and utilities, but more money is available, she said.

“We’re somewhat surprised we don’t have more participation,” Post said. She said the city is actively reaching out to businesses to encourage participation.

Post said retail and restaurants citywide are cautious as they reopen, not just in East Tampa.

“They are all pretty measured, which is a good thing,” she said.

If there is a silver lining to the crisis, it’s that small businesses are adapting. Coney said many small businesses are devoting more energy to figuring out how to bolster online sales. Both Coney and Post noted that restaurants have embraced carry-out service so much that one planned road closure designed to provide space for outdoor seating during the reopening was canceled because it interfered with curbside pickup.

On Friday, the city announced it was partnering with former State Rep. Ed Narain and other black leaders in a “Saturday to Go” initiative to support minority-owned restaurants, a private sector effort that has been underway for about a month.

“We all are adapting," Post said, "and discovering new ways of doing business.”

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