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St. Pete City Councilmember: Yes to reopening restaurants, no to beaches

Restaurants are crucial to the local economy. Beaches he said, are not.

St. Petersburg City Council member Robert Blackmon wants Pinellas County to begin a gradual reopening of restaurants for dine-in service, but he doesn’t want beaches reopened yet.

“The only aspect of vital importance for an expedited reopening strategy is reducing the financial despair of our citizens while safeguarding mental and physical health. Boredom is not a consideration, and those complaining to that end should be reminded as much,” Blackmon wrote on Facebook Saturday.

“This is not a radical move, as many restaurants are still open for takeout. Many other “essential” businesses are still open at this time, such as grocery stores, hardware stores, convenience stores, liquor stores, and others. These retailers have, on the whole, done a great job protecting their customers and employees.”

Blackmon suggests a gradual reopening, with the initial phase to include reduced capacity for dine-in service.

“With a two-month ‘ease in’ period before a return to full capacity, we will measure the effect our actions take on infection numbers before reopening further. As long as we stay at a level that does not overwhelm our medical system, we can continue on the path. And if at any point we have problems, we can freeze capacity in place,” he said.

That strategy does not, for now, include reopening beaches. Blackmon explained that doing so would not benefit the county’s economy and would put additional burden on first responders who are already overworked. Further, Blackmon explained, open beaches would encourage outsiders to flock to the shores of Pinellas County beaches.

“Like you, I miss the most tangible reminder of the paradise we call home. But reopening our beaches does not put any money in the pockets of our hardworking families,” Blackmon said. “Reopening beaches without reopening businesses is a public health risk with no economic reward.”

His post was meant with a barrage of comments from constituents, mostly praising his proposal.

Some questions were raised, however.

The restaurant industry has already been forced to take on limited business activities by providing takeout only. While many restaurants have taken advantage of that and used it as a way to continue bringing in revenue, some have chosen not to citing business costs that outweigh potential revenue. Many have continued providing takeout but at a financial loss.

By opening at reduced capacity, that problem would persist, noted one commenter.

“A partial hospitality reopen MUST include some lease/rent forbearance as well. (Restaurants) can’t survive on less than 75-80% capacity and will go under. Reopening a restaurant at 50% capacity will actually HINDER their ability to negotiate rents/leases compared to when they are shut completely,” wrote Greg Stimek.

Some questioned the safety of reopening dine-in service while the virus continues to spread.

“Dining in seems more dangerous than opening beaches unless restaurateurs are able to get creative and come up with ways to limit items being touched by multiple hands (silverware, cups, plates, etc.) before ultimately making their way into mouths,” wrote Facebook user Ashley Barnes.

Others called for both restaurants and beaches to reopen.

Blackmon responded to many posts. On the issue of reopening dine-in service, Blackmon noted potential safety mitigation strategies like using disposable plates and cutlery and enhanced sanitization efforts.

He also pointed out that his plan does not include bars or nightclubs, where individuals would be more likely to congregate closely rather than in a dining environment where families are limited to individual tables, which can be separated.

Blackmon’s discussion is timely. Gov. Ron DeSantis is expected to announce sometime this week plans for partially reopening Florida’s economy. A Pinellas County discussion is coming Tuesday and includes a recommendation from County Administrator Barry Burton to reopen beaches on a limited basis. St. Pete officials are already gathering to discuss their own local strategies.

The social distancing guidelines that have been in place for weeks have led to unprecedented job losses, with more than 500,000 Floridians filing jobless claims for the week ending April 18. Many of those workers lost jobs in the hospitality sector.

But the conversation has sparked intense debate balancing public safety with financial security.

Blackmon said his proposal considers both.

“Our number one goal must be to serve and protect our community, in terms of both health, and prosperity. While I still believe our safest place is at home, I believe there is room for common-sense solutions to begin reopening our most vital industry,” he said.

 

Janelle Irwin Taylor has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in Tampa Bay since 2003. Most recently, Janelle reported for the Tampa Bay Business Journal. She formerly served as senior reporter for WMNF News. Janelle has a lust for politics and policy. When she’s not bringing you the day’s news, you might find Janelle enjoying nature with her husband, children and two dogs. You can reach Janelle at Janelle@floridapolitics.com.

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