Bars and restaurants in St. Petersburg got a break when the City Council voted down a proposal that could have kept them from staying open late for failing to comply with Covid-19 restrictions, including enforcing mask mandates and social distancing.
Twenty people spoke against the plan during a public hearing Thursday evening, saying it would put a financial hardship on businesses already hit hard by the pandemic. Mayor Rick Kriseman told Council members that the proposal was bigger than Covid-19 and was designed to ensure public safety.
Council members voted five to two against the plan. It would have allowed the city to suspend an extended hours permit that lets a bar or restaurant remain open between 12 midnight and 3 a.m. Suspensions could have occurred if the establishment was cited twice in two years for city code violations that negatively impacted the safety or security of patrons.
The proposal, an amendment package to an existing city ordinance, has been in the works since 2019, in large part to ensure establishments had a state alcohol license in order to get an extended hours permit, said Laura Roe, legal advisor to the St. Petersburg Police Department. It was not a direct response to an executive order by the mayor, requiring businesses develop a written plan for Covid-19 mitigation, she said.
Still, it would have unintended consequences for the hospitality industry, said Ryan Griffin, an attorney at Johnson Pope, past chairman of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce and owner of Mandarin Hide and Trophy Fish restaurants.
He said there have been 267 citations in the past five months. Many citations were for employees failing to wear a face covering or failing to enforce social distancing.
“This ordinance originally was about drug trafficking, prostitution, underage alcohol, things they arrest you right on the spot for. We know how to defend that. We’re trained for that,” Griffin said. “A once-in-a-lifetime pandemic that we’re not trained for, that could ultimately jeopardize our lives – we need help.”
In a written statement, the Chamber said bars and restaurants should not have their late night permits revoked without a better education and training process for code enforcement, operators and employees.
Roger Curlin, co-founder of the Pinellas Independent Hospitality Forum, said the 100 restaurants and bars in the forum are concerned about the timing of the amendment.
“Why now, when we are really close to emerging from this awful Covid period … Why rush these amendments and bypass a dialogue with the hospitality community?” Curlin said.
He also questioned the purpose of the amendment and asked Council members to consider the effect on businesses.
“There’s already been a chilling effect where owners feel the city administration is hostile to our community and that’s not a good thing,” Curlin said. Late night permits, he said, “are sometimes the only last bit of revenue they need to cross over to profitability.”
No one spoke in favor of the plan during the public hearing.
Council member Robert Blackmon said he agreed with almost all the concerns raised during the public hearing.
“As vaccines are becoming more universally available, we’re getting to the point where free will and common sense must prevail over mandates and government oversight,” Blackmon said. “Most private businesses I’ve visited have done an excellent job of enforcement. Whenever I do see a business that is crowded beyond my comfort zone, I simply don’t enter. I go elsewhere. We should choose to reward or penalize a business not with regulation, but with our wallets.”
Council member Amy Foster, who supported the plan, offered a counter-argument.
“Many people are making decisions about where they spend their dollars and their tourism dollars based on whether it’s safe to visit or not,” said Foster, who supported the plan. “It’s a fine balance of whether we continue to have that tourism based on whether people feel safe in our community.”
Council Chairman Ed Montanari said the proposal included some provisions that should be considered, but went too far.
“It’s legislative overreach and it’s not a small legislative overreach,” he said. “I see it as kicking businesses while they are down.”
Kriseman addressed the council just before the vote. He said the city overall has done a good job of managing the pandemic, trying to find a balance between keeping the community safe and keeping businesses open. The vast majority of businesses have followed city and county orders, and of the hundreds of restaurants and bars in the city, only 11 have been issued five or more citations, he said.
While the end of the pandemic appears close, Kriseman said, “We’re not there yet. People are still getting sick and dying. We can’t just decide to let it rip because our businesses have suffered. We all want to help them. We’re going to continue to try to help them, but we can’t just let it go. That’s not who we are. We have to do things the right way. We have to care for each other. That’s who we are.”
The debate focused on Covid violations but the issue is broader, Kriseman said.
“If you fail to approve this today you are sending a message to the business community that they don’t need to follow city codes, rules, regulations or orders. That health, safety and public welfare is not as important as profit,” Kriseman said. “We are either a city of law and order where we hold people accountable for their actions or we don’t.”
Council members Foster and Lisa Wheeler-Bowman cast the only two votes for the plan, while Council members Montanari, Blackmon, Gina Driscoll, Darden Rice and Brandi Gabbard voted against it. Council member Deborah Figgs-Sanders was absent.
Separately, all the council members present voted in favor of a measure designed to clarify enforcement mechanisms for emergency orders issued by the mayor. The clarification was in response to pending legal action that contends the city mask order cannot be enforced in Pinellas County Court as a violation of city code because the city mask order is not an “ordinance.”