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Local state of emergency remains as city council explores the impact of lifting it

Jaymi Butler

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St. Petersburg will remain under a state of emergency due to Covid-19 – at least for now. 

At a city council meeting that stretched into Thursday evening, council members voted to defer making a decision on a resolution that would terminate the current state of local emergency while they gather more information on the impact the change will have. They’ll take up the issue again when they meet May 13.

That meeting falls two days after the Pinellas County Board of County Commissioners convenes to consider rescinding a county ordinance requiring face coverings in public. They could decide to rescind the entire ordinance, either immediately or at some specific date in the future, opt to keep part of it in place or choose to take no action at all.

Robert Blackmon, the council member who brought forth the resolution to end the state of emergency, said he very much believes in Covid and recognizes that it poses a continued threat. He also encouraged residents to continue to be “smart and vigilant” with their safety practices and to keep their guard up. However, with more and more people getting vaccinated, the question becomes whether a state of emergency is still necessary at this point, especially if lifting it won’t impact St. Pete’s ability to receive financial assistance from the state or federal government – something Blackmon said was confirmed by city administrators. What it will do, he noted, is allow city council members to make decisions and fulfill their responsibilities to the residents who voted for them.

“There’s a big difference in distinction between an emergency and the need for a state of emergency and it all hinges on the words ‘immediate danger,’” he said. “So a state of emergency is anticipated when minute-to-minute action is needed and council may not be able to meet regularly in person like during a hurricane or a tornado. But it’s been 13 months at this point and we’re having our second ‘time of emergency’ Grand Prix this month. And [Mayor Rick Kriseman] just announced we’re having a new ‘emergency time’ powerboat race and he was just at a ribbon cutting at a renovated Winn-Dixie. Typically during a state of immediate danger, my activities and actions would not be to run to the nearest renovated Winn-Dixie for a photo op.”

Blackmon added that “multiple recent slights” to city council – including Kriseman’s recent decision to hire a consultant on the Tropicana Field redevelopment project without seeking council approval – has made it “abundantly clear” that the council needs to have more oversight in making decisions that impact St. Pete.

“This isn’t about granting council any extra powers,” he said. “All [terminating the state of emergency] does is allow us to make the decisions we were elected to make.”

Unlike some conversations that involve Covid, the discussion among council members remained civil and respectful, though several said they didn’t feel that operating under a state of emergency was limiting their functions as a governing body. Overall, the main concern that emerged was centered around the unintended consequences that could result from lifting the order. 

Council vice chair Gina Driscoll said she worried the change could impact some of the measures the city has put into place to support small businesses during the pandemic such as the expansion of sidewalk cafe areas.

“Although we are coming back and we feel a little bit less emergency-ish these days, many of our small businesses and especially our food and beverage businesses are going to be feeling this for a really long time,” she said. “I would hate that if we voted for this today and it passed to see all the things the city has put together go away.”

Council member Darden Rice expressed concerns about the timing of lifting the order as well as the message it might send. 

“I think we’re doing a lot better, but I don’t think we’re out of the woods and I’m just not ready to declare ‘mission accomplished’ yet,” she said. 

Speaking on behalf of the administration, Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin echoed some of Driscoll and Rice’s sentiments regarding unintended consequences and messaging. She also shared thoughts from the Foundation for a Healthy St. Pete, which is encouraging Pinellas County to continue its state of emergency, and talked about the importance of viewing this issue through the lens of health equity. 

“Until the data suggests Covid is more under control across all demographics, the state of local emergency should continue,” she said. “The County needs to review the race data vaccinations and ensure we are not putting any one group by race, age or geography at greater risk. We can’t only look at what it looks like across the board. We need to really understand how this disease is affecting people who are most vulnerable.”

Tomalin also touched on Blackmon’s concerns that city council is being bypassed in making decisions that impact St. Pete.

“We are bringing items to council for consideration in keeping with the process and that will continue,” she said, speaking on behalf of both her and Kriseman. “There’s no desire to abuse or misuse your authority that comes with a state of emergency. Conversely, ending it will most certainly have unintended consequences that we could be battling much longer than the year we’ve already been battling this so I hope you will take that under serious consideration.”

Between now and May 13, city administrators will gather more information on the potential impacts that could come from lifting the emergency order. Council members will also be paying close attention to what the county decides at its May 11 meeting. 

“I think we all need to move forward with a cohesive message,” council member Brandi Gabbard said. “We don’t need to create any more confusion for anyone in our community, and we need to stay the course.”

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Avatar

    Marylee Morris

    April 18, 2021at11:55 am

    I am in favor of opening St Pete. The restrictions are causing burdens that can be easily lifted
    By letting business owners open up COMPLETELY!!!!!
    As a visitor and previous home owner, I utilize the city
    For dining ,shopping and walking.
    In my opinion the city of ST PETERSBURG
    Is the number 1 for all of the above reasons.
    I live St Pete and boast about all of the amenities this
    Wonderful city. THE BURG IS THE BEST
    In the country

    Marylee Morris, former resident and frequent visitor.

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