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Safety first is the new normal in St. Petersburg, Chamber leader says

Margie Manning

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St. Petersburg’s business community is poised to move forward because the city has emphasized safety first during the Covid-19 pandemic, a top business leader said.

A focus on face coverings, social distancing and practicing good hygiene to control the spread of the virus has prepared local business for a new normal, said Chris Steinocher, president and CEO of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce.

“Because the culture of our community was safety first, we’ve lowered the numbers and now I’ve got a confident business community that knows they can handle their customers and more,” Steinocher said. “Before, people wanted to open but they were concerned if they could keep their employees and themselves safe. Now people know what they are doing. They know now how to have those awkward conversations with customers. We’ve gone through some socialization and courageous conversations about what we believe. Luckily, in our community, because our city enforced it and our chamber supported it, they are used to that and created an environment for the next step.”

People want to get back out in a safe, controlled environment because they are missing face-to-face interactions, he said.

“We are missing those hallway conversations, those in between meeting times together, the casual soda pop on the side of the street while waiting for the next thing to happen,” Steinocher said. “Zoom calls are great, but they have to be planned, and you don’t want to bother people all the time with texts about simple questions. That gap has created concerns about what am I missing, what’s happening next. I see this pent-up demand for connection.”

When the pandemic began, many companies sent their workers home to do their jobs remotely, and as the number of Covid-19 cases soared, it was the right call to keep them at home, he said. But as the numbers have stabilized, Steinocher expects to hear more about bringing teams back together.

“We can maintain business, but I don’t know if we can innovate business isolated in these two by two inch squares without that hall intercept, that bathroom break conversation, without that casual around the refrigeration in the breakroom conversation that speeds the pace of business,” he said.

While Steinocher expects to see more in-person gatherings and events being scheduled, especially outdoors events, they come with a new set of rules.

“The conversation are awesome. The first three or five minutes is about negotiating our comfort levels. What are the rules?  Do you want masks on? How far away do you have to sit away?” Steinocher said. “Once you negotiate that with whoever you are meeting with, it’s good to sit with anybody and talk.”

Economic recovery

After the hyper focus on safety, the next step should be economic recovery, Steinocher said.

Despite business operation restrictions intended to slow the spread of Covid-19, industry sectors such as construction, manufacturing and finance have mostly remained strong, at least until recently. “If we pause in this partially reopened and not recovered economy, it creates uncertainty for every industry,” he said.

Tampa-St. Petersburg’s diversified economy that has kept job losses lower than many other metro areas in Florida, but small businesses, especially those in the hospitality sector, are hurting.

“In the country about one-third of all small businesses in leisure and hospitality are not open right now. That’s an accurate reflection of St. Pete and Pinellas county. In the state, it’s actually a little higher than that,” Steinocher said.

A survey by travel data company Destination Analysts found only 22 percent of frequent travelers nationwide expect to be traveling anytime soon, but those who do plan to travel are looking for outdoor, family-friendly locations that are familiar to them.

Steinocher said there’s a way for local hospitality businesses to capitalize on that information.

“If they have a database of anyone who’s ever stayed with them, or eaten with them, or anybody who they’ve ever sent an email or newsletter to, they better get on those customers. They remember your place and know they can navigate it. While we know we are competing with Florida and the rest of the country for less travelers, we think we can bring them here,” he said.

He’s a proponent of Visit St. Pete Clearwater’s Rise To Shine campaign, which is designed to build consumer confidence by showcasing the safety measures in place in Pinellas County. “That’s the message people want to hear,” Steinocher said.

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