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Scooters are back on Tampa streets after coronavirus shelved them for seven weeks

St. Petersburg hopes to launch its own pilot in the fall.

TAMPA — Scooters are back on Tampa streets after a 7-week absence prompted by coronavirus concerns.

Lime, Spin and Bird relaunched Wednesday and are deploying more scooters over the course of the next week. The companies were told to pull their vehicles on May 31 as the novel coronavirus continued to spread through Tampa Bay in the spring.

Providers are touting their electric, shared scooters as a safer alternative to buses and rideshares.

“You’re not close to others, you’re out in the open air,” Lime Florida General Manager Uhriel Bedoya said. “It’s a socially distanced, safe mode of transportation.”

But others are concerned about the shared nature of the vehicles, how often they’re being cleaned and how they might contribute to the spread of COVID-19.

“I’m not sure I’d be comfortable using one right now due to COVID,” said Michael Dominick, 32, of Riverview. “Although, to be fair, that also goes for things like Uber and Lyft as well for me right now.”

Brandon Campbell, Tampa’s smart mobility manager, said city officials were monitoring COVID-19 trends and evaluating when to bring scooters back. While Tampa Bay and the state continue to see high case loads and deaths daily, Campbell said officials are hoping the mask order that was put in place will make a difference.

“It’s taken a while for that to have an impact on our local numbers, but it does seem to be locally that the trend is starting to go back down,” Campbell said. “We’re cautiously optimistic that things are going to continue in the right way.”

St. Petersburg is hoping to restart its efforts to launch a similar scooter pilot after COVID-19 delayed the initial timeline. Transportation and Parking Management Director Evan Mory said the city is still moving forward with its plans to bring a scooter program to St. Petersburg. He said the City Council is likely to vote on moving forward with scooter vendors in late August, which, if approved, would mean a program start as early as September.

Bedoya and Will Burns, Spin’s Director of Government Partnerships East, said their respective companies have put in place new protocol to help defray risks of COVID-19 transmission. Both companies said employees wear personal protective equipment, regularly disinfect the vehicles and send notifications to riders about how they can protect themselves, such as bringing their own wipes and gloves.

“We’ve adapted as a company, and I think our customers have adapted, too,” Burns said.

Scooters first entered the Tampa market in May 2019 as part of a one-year pilot to see if the latest transportation trend would work here. Since then, three companies have together provided more than a million trips.

The plan was to wrap up the pilot program this spring and decide if and how to make the shared transportation option in downtown and surrounding neighborhoods permanent. Then came coronavirus.

The city extended its pilot program another 12 months to allow time for the pandemic to pass and things to return to normal, or close to it.

Campbell said the intent is to have a permanent program in place sometime before the spring.

“We keep being hopeful that we’re going to see a definitive end of the pandemic, but at some point between now and April, we’re going to have to make a decision about what our timing should be,” Campbell said.

Scooter companies prefer to market their rides as real transportation solutions that help people get to jobs, appointments or the grocery store, instead of just a fun way to spend the afternoon. Both Spin and Lime referenced internal data that showed scooter use during the pandemic saw a higher percentage of trips starting and ending with essential services.

Campbell referenced similar findings out of Baltimore that encouraged Tampa officials to bring scooters back online.

“One thing that stood out, they saw a pretty significant change in the share of scooter trips that were either beginning or ending at grocery stores and hospitals,” Campbell said. “While their data is not going to match ours exactly, it gave us a case study to see that this is the story that happened when they kept the scooters going throughout the pandemic.”

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