Gulfport has reopened for public events, including its Tuesday Fresh Market, First Friday Art Walk and Third Saturday IndieFaire Makers Market.
The popular gatherings are opening under the banner of a new safety awareness campaign, Gulfport STRONG, which focuses on social distancing and safety protocols.
The city held a ribbon cutting Tuesday morning to launch the campaign and kick start a local economy that leaders said experienced a massive downturn when the Covid-19 crisis took hold in March.
“We’ve been waiting six months and two weeks for this day to happen,” said Barbara Banno, president of the Gulfport Merchants Chamber of Commerce. “We’ve taken the time and effort to make sure the market is safe for the vendors, the customers and the community.”
Vendors set up for the Tuesday Fresh Market were in tents that were socially distanced, with only about 70 percent of the normal vendor volume. Entrance to the vendor tents were away from the sidewalk to avoid congestion. The city and chamber also set up hand sanitizers and hand washing stations up and down the streets, and volunteers handed out free masks.
“Gulfport STRONG is extremely important to give travelers and visitors the message that our community is a safe place to be, and we are taking steps every day to continue to see that it is,” said Mayor Sam Henderson. “I’m looking around and seeing people doing the right thing, standing around with our masks on getting ready to try to get back and fix our economy in a responsible way.”
At the outset of the pandemic, the restaurants, galleries and storefronts that are vital to Gulfport’s economy stood empty, local residents said.
“Walking down Beach Boulevard, it felt like a ghost town,” said Cathy Salustri Loper, a Florida travel writer who lives in Gulfport. “It made me physically anxious to see all the stores shuttered, and the few remaining open barely getting by.”
Gulfport city officials and the chamber created business grants and the chamber’s website included a take-out and delivery section for local eateries. The Gulfport STRONG campaign, created by public relations agency Carroway + Rose, is the next step to a new normal, said James Briggs, owner and creative director of the agency.
Sam Samara was setting up a tent Tuesday morning to sell baked goods. It’s his third year at the Tuesday Fresh Market and he said he’s glad to be back after six months of sitting at home.
His safety protocols included setting up a table to distance himself from customers, wearing a mask and gloves with extra masks for customers who need them, and putting up signage so customers don’t touch the food.
“We have to do what we have to do to keep safe and keep our customers safe,” Samara said.
The First Friday Art Walk re-opens Friday, Oct. 2 with a city-wide exhibit. Later this month, the Third Saturday IndieFaire Makers Market will return.
Select city buildings also will reopen this week.