Local restaurateurs and vacation rental managers vented their frustrations with the federal Payroll Protection Program and other issues for over an hour with Rep. Charlie Crist Wednesday.
Crist, D-St. Petersburg, promised to advocate for the business owners and take their concerns into account as Congress crafts CARES 2.0, legislation that could provide additional relief to companies hit hard by the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“The hospitality and tourism business is the top industry in the state of Florida and incredibly critical for us. Whether you are a restaurant, a bar, hotel, motel, gift shop, brewery, fishing charter or the myriad of support services that depend on tourism, these are the most difficult times but we’ll recover from this crisis and come back stronger than ever,” Crist said.
Tourism is the No. 1 employer in Pinellas County, and is responsible for more than 150,000 jobs across Pinellas and Hillsborough counties and billions of dollars in revenue, sales tax and other critical funding, a news release from Visit St. Pete Clearwater and Visit Tampa Bay said. The two organizations joined forces to show solidarity for those on the front lines of the hospitality industry by encouraging iconic landmarks in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area to light up in red, the official color of National Travel and Tourism Week. See photos of the Tuesday night event in the gallery below.
Crist and his congressional staff offered some advice and encouragement for the business owners on a conference call, including Mark Ferguson, owner of Ferg’s Sports Bar & Grill in St. Petersburg’s EDGE District.
Ferg’s, like other Florida restaurants, this week was able to open its indoor dining space after weeks of being shut down, but can only operate at 25 percent of capacity. Restaurants also can have outdoor seating as long as tables are six feet apart.
“With the PPP money, we have eight weeks to use for that for payroll, then it becomes a loan. It’s hard to use that up when you are only at 25 percent capacity. Is there any way we can go from eight weeks to 12 weeks?” Ferguson asked Crist.
It’s an understandable challenge, Crist said.
“We learn from what’s happening here and what the needs are going forward, and adapt and adjust as needed. This is just another example of that, Mark. I’m confident you’ll see that kind of legislation only improve and make more common sense,” Crist said.
In addition to limited restaurant capacity, phase one of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ plan to reopen Florida’s economy keeps vacation rentals closed. Several vacation rental company leaders told Crist that was unfair because other accommodations, including hotels, motels, and bed and breakfasts, have been allowed to remain open.
“I operate just like a resort hotel — 24 hour front desks, on-site maintenance departments, on-site housekeeping — but because I’m licensed as vacation rentals I can’t open up to the public,” said Oliver Kugler, who said he works for three small condo resort hotels on Treasure Island.
The pandemic hit just as the industry was beginning to recover from red tide, Marge Johnston, owner of Sunshine Vacation Rentals, told Crist. She said she’s lost over $200,000, and the losses are climbing.
“Most of our owners are on Social Security and dependent entirely on rental income from their properties … Some of these owners will lose their properties if this is allowed to continue,” Johnston said.
Crist, a former Florida governor, said he would call DeSantis to make the case for the vacation rental owners. He also urged them to reach out to their state representatives and senators, as well as industry associations.
Crist also cited his experience as a lawyer and former Florida Attorney General when Ibrahim Moussa, president of Abe’s Place Tap & Grill in Clearwater, asked about business interruption insurance. Insurance companies have said the pandemic does not qualify for business interruption insurance, according to Moussa and others on the conference call.
“I know it’s the not the most attractive means of trying to get resolution, but you can take them to court,” Crist said.
He also said his staff would try to intervene on behalf of the property owners.
As part of CARES 2.0, Crist is pushing for at least two additional months of $1,200 stimulus payments for individuals, an expansion in small business assistance, including an expanded window for PPP repayments, and expanded eligibility to include nonprofits such as museums, libraries and civic organizations.
Crist said it is possible Congress will return to Washington, D.C. next week to work on the legislation, although lawmakers also have been advised to travel as little as possible.
“What we’re working on in the interim is the opportunity to do remote voting. I think you’ll see that move forward quickly,” Crist said. “It’s kind of being in the stone age to require you to be in a certain geographic place to carry out your function, whether in government or business.”