Pinellas County commissioners have approved the broad outlines of a program that would give cash assistance to small businesses in the county as well as individuals who have been hurt by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Details remain to be determined, but County Administrator Barry Burton said he expects about 6,500 small businesses in Pinellas — those that employ 25 or fewer workers — could get about $5,000 each, to partially address loss of revenue and to support retaining employees. Adults and families who have lost income due to unemployment from Covid-19 could get about $4,000 under the plan.
Funding for the program would come from the $170 million Pinellas County expects to receive from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Burton said he wants to have the program ready to go as soon as federal officials issue specific guidelines for the use of CARES funding. That’s expected around April 24.
“Time is of the essence, especially for families trying to pay their rent and pay their utilities,” Burton said. “We’re even willing to front the money as long as we know the money will come … so we can get that money in people’s hands quicker.”
Individuals and families could get money as soon as the federal guidelines are released, Burton said. It could take a little longer for businesses to get relief as the county designs an application process.
To expedite payments, Burton wants the relief program to run through the existing Adult Emergency Financial Assistance program. That would allow applications to be automated and processed quickly, he said.
Individual cities in Pinellas County — including St. Petersburg, Tampa, Largo and Tarpon Springs — have implemented or planned similar programs, but Burton said the program he has in mind would be administered by the county.
“If we try to have individual cities design 24 individual programs, we believe that would delay getting assistance to our businesses and individuals,” he said.
During the Thursday morning meeting, commissioners authorized Burton to sign an application for the federal money and to design the relief program.
Commissioners earlier this week said they wanted to consider reopening the county’s beaches and condominium pools, but they declined to take up that issue Thursday.
Dr. Ulyee Choe, director of the Florida Department of Health, Pinellas County, told the commission that Covid-19 cases are not projected to peak in Florida until May 3.
Commissioner Kathleen Peters advocated for opening pools at condos for exercise, but failed to get any backing for that idea from other commissioners.
There are about 1,000 private pools in Pinellas County, outside of those at single-family homes. Pools at single-family homes can be used under county guidelines.
Opening condo pools without opening other private pools would be “an enforcement nightmare” and create a perception of unfairness, said Sheriff Bob Gualtieri.
County commissioners also heard from about two dozen residents, many of whom appealed to the county to allow businesses that have been shut down — such as dog groomers, flower shops and car washes — to open because they are essential.
The county is following guidance on essential businesses in Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Stay at Home order, Burton said. “We have taken the perspective that if a business is not on the list of essential businesses, it needs to close,” Burton said.
The state Stay at Home is slated to expire on April 30, and after that, Burton said he would favor going back to the county’s Safer at Home order, approved March 25, which would allow most businesses in Pinellas County to remain open as long as they enforce social distancing and crowd guidelines.
Burton also listed three criteria he wants to see met before Pinellas County lifts is restrictions:
Case count: A sustained reduction in Covid-19 cases for 14 consecutive days
Testing: Capacity to test all people with Covid-19 symptoms through same-day, point of contact diagnosis
Capacity: Hospitals and Fire/EMS are properly equipped to treat all patients requiring hospitalizations without resorting to crisis measures