INDIAN ROCKS BEACH — Matt Loder needed to decide how much booze to buy.
He was planning a luau at Crabby Bill’s, the restaurant on Gulf Boulevard his father had started in 1987. He had recovered his losses from the pandemic shutdown and wanted to take advantage of a tourism boom that has stretched into the summer.
He ordered 500 pineapples to hold a “Luau punch” he would debut, and waited to see how many he could sell.
A few days before, however, Pinellas County had issued a warning: A bloom of Red Tide spreading in patches along the coast could cause respiratory problems for people. Soon, dead fish appeared on the beach across the street. The air had given Loder a slight cough.
“So what if that smell or that Red Tide is causing respiratory problems for people? Does it stop people from coming out?” Loder said last week. “So, am I going to spend money on booze?”
Loder, like dozens of business owners up and down the beach cities along Gulf Boulevard, does not know how the Red Tide bloom will spread, how strong it will get or how long it will last. It’s currently only a slight inconvenience for many who predict the tourism boom will continue, even with dead fish washing up on shores throughout Pinellas.
The prospect of a prolonged spread, however, threatens to deflate a burgeoning season for those in the marine tourism business whose product depends on the water, many of whom struggled during the heart of the pandemic.
“It’s kind of a guessing game,” said Loder. “A one-day or two-day loss for me is okay, but it’s the bigger picture. The long-term.”
High levels of Red Tide appeared off Honeymoon Island on Monday and medium concentration was detected off Clearwater Beach on Tuesday. County officials issued a health warning to beachgoers that they could have respiratory problems on June 11. Karenia brevis, the organism that causes Red Tide, is spreading north in patches.
Along a stretch of Gulf Boulevard from Sand Key to Madeira Beach, monitoring has shown bloom levels of Red Tide over the last couple of weeks in multiple samples. Fish kills have been reported at different levels, though the county’s cleanup efforts have made some of those unnoticeable.
However, tourism officials say Pinellas County’s best summer tourism season in years has not let up in the weeks since the health warning. Average daily hotel prices in St. Petersburg and Clearwater are more than 28 percent higher than pre-COVID rates. The county’s bed taxes in April were up 30 percent compared to April 2019.
So far, the Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce hasn’t received any reports of tourism impacts from the bloom, according to Robin Miller, the chamber’s president.
A prolonged Red Tide bloom this year could have different effects on different businesses, experts said.
“Even in John’s Pass as a shopping retail outlet and restaurants, you can still go to it (during Red Tide blooms),” said Steve Hayes, president and CEO of Visit St.Pete-Clearwater. “It’s just maybe some of the things directly on the water you couldn’t do.”
Red Tide has stained Pinellas County’s pristine beaches before. A bad outbreak in 2018 caused harm to local businesses.
At the University of Florida’s Institute of Economic Impact Analysis Program, researchers are still gathering and analyzing data on the economic impact of that outbreak.
Findings from a preliminary report from UF, not yet published but shared with the Tampa Bay Times, shows that for-hire and charter operations had a 61 percent decrease in sales revenue in southwest Florida when Red Tide was present during the 2018 outbreak. Companies that provide marine recreational activities, including personal watercraft rentals, had a 40 percent decrease in sales revenue while Red Tide was present.
But Red Tide this year, far from the levels of 2018, has meant different realities for how local owners and managers are looking ahead.
“I think people just want to get out and they’re just gonna ignore it,” said Chris Hine, executive chef at Backwaters on Sand Key.
What weighs on him is not the potential lack of customers, but how to keep up with the current growth in business. He has worked 12- and 13-hour shifts six to seven days a week to keep up with his growing clientele.
“Right now, it just seems to be coming toward our beach and I haven’t seen any difference yet,” said Keegan’s Seafood Grille co-owner Jackie Schonowski. “But it could.”
At Hubbard’s Marina in John’s Pass, the staff is serving more customers than ever, though they are ordering less product than they would without the bloom.
A few doors down, employees at The Spice & Tea Exchange said sales are up and will likely remain so. At Scully’s Waterfront Restaurant, assistant general manager Lindsay Cohen said Red Tide won’t stop the tourism uptick.
However, next door at Woody’s Watersports, co-owner Michael Berry is worried for his Jet Ski rental company and his employees.
He left his job as a high school English teacher in Connecticut and bought Woody’s with his wife, Stephanie, in 2018. They moved here with their three kids and learned their way around the business. Two months after they opened, Red Tide shut them down.
With the new bloom, Berry said he’s more concerned about his employees’ health than his profits. His first cancellation came last Wednesday, though conditions have improved since Friday, he said.
“If the water is nasty, I don’t want them to cough and I don’t want them going home with their eyes bothering them,” he said of his employees. “I don’t want them looking at me like ‘why isn’t he closing, why is he still renting Jet Skis? Why are we still here?’”
However, right next door, Lindsay Cohen has hardly given Red Tide any thought.
She started working at The Hut Bar & Grill in November, just as customers started to return. Business ramped up more at the beginning of the year and it hasn’t stopped. After the pandemic shutdown and a year of isolation, dead fish and an odor won’t stop people from eating out or stopping by for a drink, she said.
“Red Tide (in 2018) was a big deal. But now, after COVID, it seems like it was nothing compared to what we’ve all just been through,” she said. “If we got through that, we can definitely get through this.”
Back at Crabby Bill’s, the weekend had come, the luau had started and the staff changed into Hawaiian shirts and served punch from pineapple cups.
In walked Brie Duvall and Samuwel Jackson, a couple from the St. Louis area who hadn’t been on a vacation in nearly two years. They were forced to leave their bartending jobs during the pandemic lockdown, stayed inside for months and eventually started splitting ramen noodles with frozen chicken breast for dinner.
Their bars re-opened in the fall. They’ve slowly recovered their losses. Duvall worked nine-hour shifts six days a week and Jackson worked 12 hours a day five days a week for nearly a year.
“We needed to come down here and get a breath of fresh air,” said Jackson. “We worked really, really hard to get away and look at the ocean. Have dinner. Be the ones being waited on.”
They stayed at a hotel with a view of Clearwater Beach, where they noticed a few dead fish on the shore. But they also saw a dolphin, went to a nightclub and made a pact to talk about work as little as possible. They had never heard of Red Tide. They didn’t much care about potential coughs or dead fish.
A day after the event, Loder said he wasn’t coughing as much as he had been earlier in the week. The number of dead fish washed up on the shore seemed to have gone down.
And he had gotten the right amount of drinks: Crabby Bill’s had sold 450 of the 500 pineapples they had ordered.
“I think, based on what we experienced, we’re not going to pull back,” he said.