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Pinellas beach businesses uneasy as restrictions take hold

Margie Manning

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John's Pass Village (Photo credit: City of Madeira Beach)

Pinellas County beaches remain open, but businesses that rely on beach visitors are on edge about the economic impact they will feel from efforts to control the spread of Covid-19 coronavirus.

“Our businesses right now are living in the moment of trying to deal with immediate changes in the way they operate their businesses, and very anxious about the fact that they know the economic impact to them and their staff is substantial,” said Robin Miller, president and CEO of the Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce.

Pinellas County Administrator Barry Burton said at a Tuesday afternoon news conference that the county is working with the beach communities, hotels and business owners to implement social distancing guidelines recommended by the Centers for Disease Control.

“This includes asking our visitors to practice social responsibility by … not gathering groups larger than 10, keeping a distance of six feet, asking hotel operators to spread out chairs and other types of beach activities,” Burton said.

There has not been any discussion about closing the beaches, said Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gaultieri. Not allowing people on the beaches could make the situation worse, he said. “All of those people who are out there will be in restaurants, bars and tighter spaces inside,” Gaultieri said.

The decision was made in partnership with the 24 beach communities in Pinellas, Burton said.

Burton also issued an emergency order, requiring all Pinellas County restaurants and other establishments licensed to sell alcohol for consumption on premises to stop serving alcohol by 10 p.m. It’s an additional measure not covered in an earlier order from Gov. Ron DeSantis, closing all bars and nightclubs in Florida for 30 days.

Miller said she understand the need for the restrictions.

“No one in government or leadership has made these decisions lightly at all. They have all contemplated the ramifications, they all feel the pain, they have all questioned what we are going to do about the impact to people. It’s not like these were irrational quick decisions. It’s just an unfortunate circumstance we’re in today,” Miller said.

Still there will be economic fallout.

“The No. 1 feedback I have been given from every hospitality business is the staff wants to know what’s going to happen with them. In hospitality most of us live on a very tight budget, and we’re looking at 30-day closures at  a lot of these establishments. They immediately have lost their week to week paychecks,” Miller said.

She also said her members welcome anything the county, the state and the federal government are doing to help, including activating an emergency bridge loan program for small business. The program offers short-term, interest-free loans, intended to bridge the gap until a business can secure other financial resources, including Small Business Administration loans.

Businesses with fewer than two employees can receive up to $25,000, while businesses with two to 100 employees can receive up to $50,000. The emergency bridge loans are interest-free for one year, and after that 12 percent interest will charged on the unpaid balance until the loan is repaid in full, said Stacey Swank, public relations and media manager for Pinellas County Economic Development. More information on the emergency bridge loan program is here.

“You can move on once the SBA opens up their process, which is a longer-term loan at a lower interest rate,” Swank said.

The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity will administer the emergency bridge loan program in partnership with the Florida SBDC Network and Florida First Capital Finance Corp.

Not every business is thrilled about taking a loan, Miller said.

“Some will, some won’t, some can’t, but as we keep adding these type of resources to the opportunities they can have, it will only help us going forward,” Miller said.

The Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber is putting together a task force to develop ideas on other things the government can do to help the hard-hit hospitality industry

“The suggested ideas that we’ve spoken about in the last couple of days are relieving some of these businesses of certain taxes that they have to file by a specific date, waiving certain fees, maybe even municipalities waiving a licensing fee,” Miller said. “Just any little thing that we can do to make sure that when we come out of this, these businesses can have some resources.”

Separately, Florida businesses can still participate in a business damage assessment survey to measure the economic impact of coronavirus. Click here for a link to the survey and select “COVID-19” from the drop-down menu.

As of mid-day Monday, more than 1,200 businesses statewide had completed the survey, Swank said.

“It helps to establish there is a need for economic relief from the government to help with loans in Pinellas County,” she said.

Closer look: Florida Chamber survey

The Florida Chamber of Commerce surveyed employers statewide about coronavirus. Survey results were as of March 17.

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