To kick off the new year, The Suncoast Tiger Bay Club hosted its annual State of the Bay mayors forum Thursday featuring Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman.
Much of the hourlong virtual discussion was focused on the Covid-19 pandemic and the challenges that came along with it, including getting residents not to view safety protocols like mask wearing and social distancing through a political lens.
“We’ve done everything we can to take politics out of it and to focus on the science,” said Castor, noting that in Tampa, leaders have tried to insert levity into a serious situation by holding mask contests and putting chalk messages on the sidewalk featuring pirates and manatees to remind people to stay six feet apart.
Hibbard said that when he encounters people who don’t want to wear masks, he points out other regulations that are in place that most everyone follows without questioning.
“We don’t let you smoke indoors, we require you to wear seatbelts – this is a perfect example of things we are doing for the greater good,” he said. “We want to keep those that we love safe.”
In St. Pete, Kriseman said, a number of strategies have been put into place to encourage residents to follow the rules.
“We try to appeal to our community values and we tend to look out for each other,” he said. “The best way to do that is to wear a mask and social distance.”
Kriseman also mentioned the city’s Race to Safe campaign which challenges residents to step up and do their part in the fight against Covid.
As far as what each mayor would do differently in response to the pandemic, they all said that hindsight is 2020. Castor and Kriseman agreed that initial communication between cities and with the state could have been better. However, both said they’re glad to see more regional alignment related to local ordinances, making it easier for people to comply no matter what city they’re in.
“We all ended up at the same place with a lot of our ordinances, but had we been able to remove the politics from this and only deal with the effects in the science of it, we would have been able to work in a more coordinated fashion,” Castor observed, adding that the testing and contact tracing processes could have also used some improvement, along with stressing the importance of safe behavior to younger people.
Having more scientific understanding of the virus possibly could have also prevented the widespread shutdown of local businesses, Hibbard said.
“We can Monday morning quarterback this, but I think we would have been more careful about what we closed and how we closed it,” he said. “Unfortunately, today we are still having the greatest problem with groups of people being irresponsible and getting together in large numbers and then going out and infecting other people. What we need to do is convince people really to be responsible and careful and thoughtful of those around them.”
When asked what Covid-related changes will have staying power in the future, all three mayors said that the pandemic has given them an opportunity to learn about new ways to get things done. They expect to see more telecommuting, and Kriseman said that St. Pete officials will be taking a different look at their plans to build a new Municipal Services Center.
“What we thought we were going to need for space, we have to take a step back now and say ‘all right, do we really need the square footage that we thought we were going to need anticipating growth going forward or might we see more telecommuting now than we had anticipated? Do we need to build that much and spend as much on the building?’” Kriseman wondered.
Hibbard said he expects to see a continued widespread use of technology not only in terms of the workplace but also related to strengthening the ties between governments and citizens and fostering more communication, while Castor predicts the pandemic will encourage people to pay more attention to the environment and sustainability as well as their personal role in keeping the community healthy. Also, she thinks businesses that have been forced to pivot during this time will continue to find creative ways to survive and thrive.
“That really is a silver lining in all of this and we’ll try to build on it in the future,” she said.
In terms of the impact of loss of tourism revenue related to the pandemic, the mayors each noted that they’ll have to put some of their capital improvement projects on hold. None of the cities have yet been eligible for CARES Act funding due to their size, but Kriseman said he’s hopeful that might change in the next round.
“That could help offset some of the losses we are sustaining,” he said, noting that he’s thankful the city hasn’t had to lay off any employees, a statement later echoed by Castor.
While Clearwater has certainly been affected by reduced tourism, Hibbard predicts a strong rebound based on pent-up demand for travel and said there are several hotels being built in the city and at the beach. And for anyone who might have second thoughts about visiting downtown Clearwater, Hibbard had this message:
“Come to downtown Clearwater – Scientology is not contagious,” he said.
Overall, the three mayors are optimistic for what the future holds for the Tampa Bay region, noting they will work together to promote the area to businesses and individuals because when one area succeeds, everyone wins.
“I think there’s a lot of opportunity for each of us,” Kriseman said. “Brighter days are ahead.”