Thousands of people and businesses have asked Pinellas County for emergency financial help to cope with the Covid-19 crisis.
The county has received more than 5,300 calls about Pinellas CARES Financial Assistance for Individuals, and 2,214 applications for Pinellas CARES Small Business Grants, County Administrator Barry Burton told the Board of County Commissioners during an online meeting Tuesday.
The county has ramped up staffing for the emergency financial aid programs, which tap about $170 million in funding Pinellas County received from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act. Staff are working to process the applications as quickly as they can, Burton said. For the small business program, which just opened applications Monday, 702 applications are in the process of being reviewed and 39 have been submitted for payments.
Burton said the county programs don’t have the same issues that impacted the federal Paycheck Protection Program or the Florida unemployment claims process, which was slowed by an outdated computer system.
“These are not state or federal programs. There’s been a lot of problems with the PPP going through banks. This is a bridge, a little bit of money to help people get to the other programs. We tested the system to make sure we don’t have a system that crashes or something like that, and we tried to make it simple to get people assistance quickly,” Burton said. “So please, if you’ve been impacted by Covid, please call either program and we would happily try to assist.”
More information about both financial aid programs, including how to apply, is here.
Commissioners also got updates about Pinellas beaches and Covid-19 test sites, as the county works to gradually emerge from the shutdowns that followed a statewide state at home order and a county safer at home order, now both expired. Commissioners extended the local state of emergency until 3 p.m. Friday, May 15.
“We continue to look at our data trying to make sure we are making good decisions as we track our progress and begin to open things up, making sure we are taking appropriate measures to keep things safe,” Burton said.
He showed charts indicating the number of new confirmed cases of Covid-19 was falling, the number of people getting tested was rising, the number of people testing positive was holding steady at about 2 percent, and hospitals had enough capacity for additional patients. There were 766 total Covid-19 cases in Pinellas County as of Sunday, Burton said. The number of total cases stood at 788 when commissioners met on Tuesday.
“We’re not recommending any changes at this time,” Burton said. “We would ask that we continue the state of emergency and watch what the governor does in terms of executive orders. I’m sure there’s more to come on that as we continue to open significant pieces of our economy.”
Pinellas beaches opened Monday morning with about 250 deputies from the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Department posted to ensure visitors followed social distancing guidelines.
“It was busy for an early May Monday but everybody abided by the distancing requirements. People were following the rules,” Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said. “I think it was a very successful opening.”
Gualtieri said some pictures of the beaches don’t accurately portray the situation. He showed an image of Clearwater Beach taken at ground level in which the beach looked packed. He also showed a picture taken from a helicopter of the same area at the same time of day that showed people spread out on the sand.
“When you look at the exact same view from up above you can see that people are doing what they’re supposed to be doing and in fact, there’s a lot of room out there on the beach for people to spread out,” Gualtieri said.
There are several testing sites now open in Pinellas County, including three sites operated by Community Health Centers of Pinellas that opened Monday in Clearwater, Pinellas Park and at the Johnnie Ruth Clarke Center in St. Petersburg. Those sites are free and will provide tests for residents who don’t have symptoms of Covid-19.
Another test site, operated by AdventHealth, will open Monday at St. Petersburg College in Tarpon Springs, Burton said.