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St. Petersburg City Council member says focus on business, forget the beaches

City Council member Robert Blackmon took to Facebook on Saturday to say he disagrees with a proposal to reopen Pinellas County beaches while businesses remain closed.
City Council member Robert Blackmon wants businesses open before beaches.
City Council member Robert Blackmon wants businesses open before beaches. [ DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Apr. 25, 2020
Updated Apr. 25, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG — To the long list of government officials contemplating how to reopen at every level after they were shut down in response to the coronavirus, add City Council member Robert Blackmon.

Blackmon took to Facebook on Saturday to air a plan of sorts on how to reopen the local business community. And it doesn’t start with beaches.

“Beaches do not benefit people right now," Blackmon said by phone on Saturday.

His thoughts come as Pinellas officials say they will be considering opening up the county’s world famous beaches, and as the conversation, both locally and nationally, has turned from containing the spread of the virus to restarting the economy.

Related: Open the beaches and pools, Pinellas County administrator and sheriff say

Blackmon’s idea is to focus on the hospitality industry, which drives the local economy and has been particularly devastated by travel restrictions and restaurant closures. He wants to reopen restaurant dining rooms at reduced capacity, slowly increasing their maximum allowable capacity, while measuring the effect of people dining together locally on the trajectory of the virus.

“As long as we stay at a level that does not overwhelm our medical system, we can continue on the path,” he wrote. “And if at any point we have problems, we can freeze capacity in place.”

He added that the reopening wouldn’t include businesses characterized as bars or nightclubs. The “ease-in” of restaurants would happen over a two-month period. He suggested the reopening of dining establishments could begin by May 15.

“This is not a radical move, as many restaurants are still open for takeout,” he wrote.

As for beaches, he wrote, being bored at home shouldn’t be a public policy consideration.

“Reopening our beaches does not put any money in the pockets of our hardworking families."

The viability of his concept hinges on what Gov. Ron DeSantis decides to do next week. Florida is currently under a statewide shutdown of all nonessential businesses, which is set to expire on April 30. The degree to which cities and counties have any control depends on what restrictions DeSantis decides to keep in place beyond Thursday.

On Saturday, the governor said as he reopens the state in phases, movie theaters and sports venues will remain closed.

“We’re not doing in-person sports yet no matter what,” DeSantis said at a news conference in Weston.

Related: ‘I’m not in a rush.’ DeSantis says no theaters or sports venues yet. Florida will reopen in phases

Also, Pinellas County officials have the authority to keep nonessential businesses within St. Petersburg closed. In addition to the statewide order, which is most restrictive, St. Petersburg is also under a countywide business closure.

Ultimately, any level of citywide decision making will be exercised by St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman. To the extent paths are clear at the county and state levels, he has the authority to open and close business sectors because of powers granted to him while the city remains under a state of emergency.

Kriseman on Friday released a list of 17 advisers he will consult in deciding how to reopen businesses within the city. The mayor and City Council will discuss city restart strategies during a meeting on Thursday.

Related: Here’s who is advising Mayor Rick Kriseman on reopening St. Petersburg

Blackmon said by phone that he didn’t write his Facebook post to preempt the mayor.

“I put this up not to step on his toes,” he said. "I just want to make my thoughts known.”

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