St. Petersburg’s downtown and waterfront were jammed Saturday, as Localtopia took over Williams Park and surrounding streets, and the St. Pete Pier was so popular that the on-site parking lots were filled by noon, a guard stationed at the entrance to turn vehicles away.
Parking spaces were at a premium, as Beach Drive restaurants, particularly those offering outdoor dining, were also at capacity.
All on a day where temperatures barely scraped into the low 70s. And when Covid-19 fears remain very real.
Localtopia, the vendors’ fair featuring only St. Pete-area merchants, was the city’s first large-scale outdoor event held in pandemic times. Saturday’s eighth annual festival operated at approximately half-capacity in order to keep attendees, and vendors, from getting too close to one another.
There were just two entrances to the event, with temperature checks at each, and face masks required for everyone, at all times. Only a certain number were allowed in at a time.
While event organizer Olga Bof of Keep St. Petersburg Local declined to reveal the exact number of visitors to Localtopia 2021, “We knew we weren’t going to get last year’s numbers,” she said. “We were overwhelmed, in a good way, by how many people actually chose to come out and show support.”
Still, some bad apples disregarded the rules, which were trumpeted in social media and posted at both entrances, and at every vendor booth. “I really expected that we were going to have the ‘good vibe’ people that we’ve had at Localtopia in the past,” said Bof, who stationed herself at the 1st Avenue North entrance to remind those waiting to get in about staying safe.
“But about 20 percent of the people in the queue didn’t even have masks. We told them that masks were required under a county ordinance. I wanted people to understand what the rules were before they even entered that gate, and we had disposable masks to give them, if necessary.”
Many left the queue, complaining and shooting “dirty looks” in her direction, Bof said.
Another hard-and-fast rule mandated food and drink only in a designated area – “it was not a “sip and stroll event,” Bof said – but some insisted on walking among the vendors, maskless and sipping beers. Others planted themselves on the grass in front of the live music stage, with food and drink.
“Some people just wanted to come and have a free-for-all, like it wasn’t a pandemic,” she said. “Like they did at the Super Bowl in Ybor. They just wanted to drink and eat in the grass. That, to me, was shocking and frustrating.”
From the stage, emcee Rachel Webb pleaded with those on the grass to put on masks. According to Bof, they threw things at her.
“I had to escort, with a police escort, a couple of resisters out,” Bof said. “That part was gross. I expected a couple of physical conversations – ‘hey, can we mask up here?’ – but what we saw was … well, I understand it. It was the exuberant joy that comes from ‘This is like something we used to do before!’ It was joy-filled, and we wanted that. But we wanted you to be joy-filled with your masks on.”
The majority, Bof stressed, followed the safety mandates without issue. And seemed to be having a wonderful time.
For the vendors, Localtopia was a big success. For some, perilously close to the make-or-break point due to Covid-caused shutdowns, it was a lifesaver.
“They had their best sales day ever last year, and we were worried because this year, obviously, wasn’t going to look the same,” explained Bof. “We hoped they might get even 50 percent of last year; that would be great.
“Some of them I think made as much money as they made last year, when we had the biggest Localtopia ever. Because the community heeded the call to support these folks and keep them in business.”