During a news conference in his office Thursday morning, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman lashed out at Gov. Ron DeSantis, who on Monday issued an executive order that immediately suspended all local Covid-19 restrictions, even though a state of emergency still exists at the state level and was recently extended by the governor himself.
“There is no mask mandate,” Kriseman said, reading from prepared remarks. “There is no mandate requiring social distancing. There are no restrictions related to dining, to sitting while eating or drinking or tables being six feet apart. There are no more protocols or restrictions around events.”
Accusing DeSantis of making a power grab and risking Floridians’ lives for the sake of political gain, he added, “The governor’s actions, which I believe to be foolish, shortsighted and legally tenuous, are clear. He has preempted us. In true DeSantis fashion, he declared all local states of emergency over, while extending his own state of emergency. I’ll let you guys figure that one out.”
Taking questions from reporters, Kriseman said the governor’s order “really put businesses in a tough place” because business owners and their employees will be forced to “become the mask police” if they choose to continue to require patrons to wear masks. “People are going to walk in and say, ‘Well, the governor says I don’t have to wear a mask anymore.’”
However, Kriseman acknowledged that there’s nothing the city can do from an enforcement standpoint and that businesses that choose not to continue Covid-19 protocols won’t face fines or any other punishment. But he said such businesses might want to think twice before completely reversing course.
“Your actions are putting people at risk,” he said. “It’s short-term gain for long-term pain. There are a lot of folks in our community who aren’t comfortable going into places where there are no masks, so you risk actually not gaining customers, but losing them.”
Kriseman also appealed to the public to get vaccinated against Covid-19, saying that was the best way to end the debate over masks and social distancing.
“We’ve only got 44 percent of Pinellas County that’s been vaccinated,” he said. “The CDC has said herd immunity is at 70 percent. We’re a long way off, folks, from getting to that point. Each one of you needs to get vaccinated. If you get vaccinated, not only are you protecting yourself, but you’re also protecting your family. You’re protecting your friends. You’re protecting the community.”
Moments after the press conference, the mayor went before City Council, saying he would extend a city emergency order by one week, in large part to figure out how to deal with expanded outdoor dining.
Kriseman last spring temporarily suspended a requirement for city sidewalk café permits, allowing restaurants with existing parking lots or adjacent spaces to expand their outdoor seating areas.
Two Central Avenue restaurateurs urged City Council to act quickly to ensure that be allowed to continue.
Federico Fanelli, owner of Italy Bottega at 1045 Central Ave., said he got an email Wednesday from the city saying the restaurant must remove tables and chairs from in front of the restaurant.
“It’s not only that we have to remove the tables and chairs, but to think about another business strategy. We have to inform all our customers that something is changing,” Fanelli told council members. “All of Central Avenue is struggling. We are small businesses. We are not huge restaurants. Tourists are choosing this town because of Central Avenue, because of small businesses, because of the beauty and atmosphere of this town. So if we are in trouble, probably also the town will be in trouble.”
He said Kriseman’s decision to extend the emergency order by a week would give restaurants and small businesses time to understand better how to manage the current situation.
Sebastien Thuriere, owner of Copa at 1047 Central Ave., shares café space outdoors with Italy Bottega and told City Council members that his restaurant was able to stay in business because it was able to provide outside dining.
“We’re extremely grateful that the barricades were put in place and we were able to stay in business for the most part by bringing our business from inside to outside. But it took a lot and we’ve literally transformed our business model to make it as beautiful outside as inside. The short notice puts us in a difficult spot,” Thuriere said. “For example, last night, Cinco De Mayo, we had one table inside. Everyone wants to sit outside. The only time people sit inside is when there’s no more seating outside. I think the public is still really aware of what’s going on and wants to take protective measures, even though things are becoming more lax in a sense.”
He said the business owners he’s spoken to on Central Avenue are on board with making expanded outdoor dining permanent.
“We have seen that people enjoy having these extra opportunities to dine outside,” City Council member Gina Driscoll said. “We know that it’s healthier. That doesn’t go away with a governor’s decision and anything we can do to help continue that is a good thing.”
Kriseman said he is working to bring a measure to the City Council quickly to allow the expanded outdoor dining to continue.
Catalyst Business Editor Margie Manning contributed to this story.