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‘This is the normal we have to live with:’ Rick Kriseman reflects on the pandemic

Jaymi Butler

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Rick Kriseman

Six months ago, when businesses began to shutter with the spread of Covid-19, it was almost inconceivable that the pandemic and its restrictions and limitations would last this long. Yet here we are, with no guarantees of a return to “normal” any time soon. In this series, the Catalyst talks with leaders in business, the arts and government about those six long months, about sacrifices they’ve made, and continue to make in order to survive, and about the future and how it looks to them. This is The New Normal.

Rick Kriseman can’t remember the exact date he learned about the first confirmed case of Covid-19 in Pinellas County. Just like it has for all of us, the concept of time has become a little fuzzier as our days are consumed by endless Zoom calls, random home improvement projects and occasionally successful attempts to keep our kids on some sort of schedule.

“Since this all has started, it’s hard to keep track of time,” mused Kriseman, who’s currently serving his second and final term as mayor of St. Petersburg. “The days of the week all start to meld into each other.”

Kriseman’s days, however, include a lot more than most people’s as he navigates the challenges of running a government in the age of Covid-19. During a recent conversation with the Catalyst, Kriseman reflected on the past six months, how he stays motivated on the hard days and what he expects to see in the future. Plus, he shares some suggestions for your next TV binge session. 

The Catalyst: When did Covid first appear on your radar? 

RK: I was in DC in January and didn’t hear a whole lot about it then. It didn’t seem to be a threat and there was not a lot of talk, but then January turns into February and February turns into March and then the talk really started increasing. As we got even closer to the Grand Prix, things got really ramped up. 

Did you immediately realize the virus was going to have such an impact on the world and in St. Pete?

I don’t know that any of us, at least initially, were able to comprehend the full extent of the impact this was going to to have. Obviously, as things started shutting down and events started canceling around the country – and our Grand Prix was one of the first to not occur because of Covid – that’s when we as a city government started looking at it and saying “OK, this is something significant. We’re really going to have to think through the long-term impacts this is going to have on our community, and how we can minimize them to the greatest degree we can for our residents.” It didn’t take long to activate the emergency operations center and start meeting as a team and thinking it through. 

Floridians are used to dealing with natural disasters. What makes Covid-19 different?

This is very different than dealing with a hurricane, which is part of the reason it’s been so hard for the public to deal with. With a hurricane, you know when it’s coming, how long it lasts and what the aftermath looks like. With the pandemic, there’s so much we still don’t know. 

How would you rate the state and national response in the early days of Covid? When did it become apparent that you were going to have to take matters into your own hands at the local level to limit the spread of the virus? 

Support from the state has been poor, and communication has been a significant issue. Even today, we had the governor in St. Petersburg and he’s indoors and not wearing a mask. He’s not social distancing. He may not be saying anything about that, but he certainly is communicating by his actions. The messaging didn’t start out well and it’s still not well, and it’s the same thing with the federal government. We knew pretty quickly we would have to take the lead on this. Fortunately, through the U.S. Conference of Mayors, I have a good network and access to information and experts that I’ve been able to take advantage of. As mayors, we know we can’t often rely on the federal government or state government. We have to do it ourselves. St. Pete was one of the first cities, and certainly the first in Tampa Bay, to put a safer-at-home order in place. We were the first to put the mandatory mask order in place. I think we’re the only city in Tampa Bay that actually is issuing citations for violating the orders. We felt we had the lead in this issue because we weren’t going to get the support we needed. It’s also why we started the Fighting Chance Fund as quickly as we did.  We knew our residents and businesses were hurting and we didn’t want to have to count on – and we didn’t think we could count on – the state and federal government to get money into their hands quickly. 

Speaking of the business community, what do you anticipate the city’s local business landscape to look like once the pandemic is over and there’s a vaccine?

The unfortunate reality is that some of our local businesses may not be able to survive. That hurts us particularly because we are a city of small businesses. It kind of defines who we are and so any time we lose any, especially due to Covid – that hurts. That’s why we’ve done what we’ve done, and thankfully we have a great partner with Pinellas County who also is providing CARES Act funding that they received. There are a number of businesses that have had to be very nimble and have figured out how to to survive through Covid and the restrictions that are in place. We’re thankful for them and glad to see them survive, but it’s going to look a little different and I think there will be some permanent changes as a result of Covid.

What are some of the changes you anticipate?

A lot of businesses have had to switch over to telecommuting for their employees, and they’re going to be looking at how it has worked so far. If it’s worked well and hasn’t had an impact on quality of service or revenue, they may look at allowing people to telecommute permanently. That leads to a discussion of office space. There are two lines of thinking here. One is “well, if we’re telecommuting, we may not need as much office space.” The other is that we had moved into a period where businesses were looking at breaking down walls and having everyone work communally. But with Covid and needing to have distance, they may go back to having those walls and defined offices and maybe needing more space so they can create more room for social distancing. People will come down on the side of what works best for their companies, but I think that will be one of the things that comes out of this.

What have been the pros and cons of running a government over Zoom?

I’m incredibly thankful for the technology. Human beings are social beings. Phone calls are OK, but it’s not the same as being able to see somebody. The generation growing up now that’s so used to texting is missing something important. Communication is more than just what comes out of your mouth and what you’re typing – you can see it in the person’s face. There wouldn’t have been a “Lyin’ Eyes” song if it wasn’t for that.

Like I said, I’m thankful for the technology, but a Zoom meeting isn’t the same as a face-to-face meeting, and in some ways, I find Zoom meetings more mentally draining. I’m a social person. I miss shaking people’s hands and hugging. I like that contact. There’s an interaction when you’re shaking hands or hugging someone that you don’t get with technology. We’re all as a society missing that.

In terms of city meetings, I would have initially said they’d be shorter this way. Having said that, I’ve seen Zoom meetings that go on for hours and hours and hours so it doesn’t seem like it is in that respect having the impact I thought it might have. Here’s the other big one when we talk about city council meetings, and we had this happen to our city council where someone gets on there and gets vulgar and offensive. I don’t see them doing that if they had to walk into the room and stand at a podium with a crowd of people looking at them and the council along with security. They wouldn’t do it, but they feel very comfortable doing it on Zoom. 

How many Zoom calls do you typically have in a day? Had you done any before the pandemic?

I probably have six or seven each day. I had a few before this all happened but most everything was in person. I used to love having people come into my office at City Hall and sit around the table. It made things a lot easier, especially when looking at documents. It’s a lot easier to have that interactive conversation than it is on this technology. You don’t want to speak over someone and even though you still don’t want to do that when you’re face-to-face, it doesn’t happen in the same way as it does in a Zoom meeting. Granted, this technology gives you the chat box and “raise your hand” features, but no one really seems to use them – they just seem to jump in anyway. 

What has been the most difficult point of the pandemic – either a certain week, month or experience that has been especially challenging?

There’s been a couple. Before we were able to get the Fighting Chance Fund up – and my staff did an amazing job getting it set up quickly and getting money out quickly – but just knowing when we first put the safer-at-home order in and told everyone who wasn’t essential that they had to close – that moment knowing that we had to do it but anticipating the economic and real-life impact that it would have on our businesses and residents was hard. I have no regrets, but that was really difficult.

The Pier. It was such a long process to get to a point and ready to open and knowing we couldn’t have the celebration that it deserved and the community deserved and, quite frankly, my team deserved. That was really hard. We made the best of it, which is all you can do, but that was another tough moment. 

How do you keep yourself going when so much is coming at you at once, like the pandemic, protests and hurricane season? 

When the first tropical storm threatened us, someone asked me “Mayor, did you ever think in your lifetime that in a single day you’d have to deal with a pandemic, civil unrest and a tropical storm that’s threatening you?” I can’t say I thought that would ever happen. This is when you have to rise up. It’s why I wanted the job. This is when we need people to lead and leaders to lead, and it’s why I’ve been so disappointed in our governor. And when I talk about him, it’s not partisan because I look at Governor DeWine in Ohio and the governor of Arkansas and even Mississippi now who have put in mandatory mask orders. We used to joke that we were always better than Mississippi and we can’t even say that now.

This is when you have to step up and be a leader. You don’t have a choice; this is what you signed up for. I will say, and I always hesitate to say this because I’m not looking for sympathy, I have had more sleepless nights since all this stuff hit at once than in my entire time as mayor, and we’ve had significant issues with infrastructure and our wastewater system. It’s not like we didn’t have big issues, but having this hit all at once – this weighs on you. The hardest part is the uncertainty of not knowing when it’s going to end, and I think a lot of people will suffer PTSD and mental health issues because of it. I know from my colleagues who are all mayors, we all talk and one of the things we say to each other is that we have to make sure we make time for family and take time to get away for a few days just to destress and let everything go so we can come back refreshed and ready to take it on again. I’ve been able to do that. I got away for a week and went up to the mountains with my family. 

How do you unwind from dealing with all these heavy issues? What kinds of “mindless” activities do you enjoy?

One of the things I’ve always enjoyed doing and people look at me like I’m crazy when I say this – I like grocery shopping. I know that sounds strange, but I enjoy it. I don’t know what it is – maybe trying to find the best deals I can on what I’m buying, so that’s one thing. I’ve used some of my weekend time, especially during the safer-at-home order, to do projects around the house. I like building things and I actually don’t mind cleaning out the garage or tackling a room. I built a waist-high planter, a deck in my backyard and a fire pit. And then my wife and I have enjoyed a number of different series on Netflix and Amazon Prime. At night, we just binge out. I can escape into whatever series I’m watching.

What do you recommend?

The Crown was really good. Ozark. Shtisel. We just finished the third season of Outlander and they’ve been really good. We watched The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. We’ll blow through one and then it’s like, “OK, what’s the next one we can watch?”

Have there been any silver linings in this experience?

I knew I worked with really dedicated, talented people, but I’ve been unbelievably impressed and proud of my entire city team. They go to work every day and a lot of times, they put themselves in harm’s way. Everyone thinks police and fire and obviously we should, but on my city team, it’s sanitation and public works and parks and recreation and folks you don’t necessarily think of. They went in every day and worked hard and didn’t complain. They did it because they love the city and they want to do public service.

I think we learned a lot about ourselves as a city and how to function and it’s caused us to take a step back. I mentioned working at home and telecommuting – we’re going to look at our entire telecommuting policy now because this has taught us not only can we do more than we thought we could, but in some cases we can even be more efficient and productive. I thought we’d see a decrease in quality and quantity and we haven’t seen that at all. We’ve been looking at redesigning and building a new municipal services center so now we’re going to take a step back and look at how much space we really need.

I’m a person who always looks for silver linings. This has further demonstrated that in this community, people do in fact care about each other. When we first started with the mandatory mask order to where we are today – the compliance is remarkably better and people are doing what they need to do and doing the right thing. That’s why we’re seeing the success in Pinellas County and in St. Pete. We’re hovering around 3 percent for our rolling two-week average. That’s fantastic. That’s a silver lining. When I call on this community to step up, they do. 

How do we as a community plan for the next six months when things remain so fluid? What words of encouragement do you have?

The first thing is you just have to be honest with people, and that’s something I’ve tried to do, and it’s really important. Even a couple of weeks ago during a Facebook Live I said “this is great. Thank you all for helping us get our percentage to where it’s at, but understand that doesn’t mean we need to stop wearing our masks.” We need to keep wearing our masks so we can keep people safe. If we don’t want our hospitals to get filled, if we want our businesses to stay open, we have to do this until we get to that time when there’s a readily accessible vaccine. Until then, this is the normal we have to live with.

Just remember that when you wear your mask, you’re not just doing it for yourself, you’re doing it for everyone in the community. I wear mine to protect you, you wear yours to protect me, we wear ours to protect the community. I just want to keep reminding people what the end game is and why we’re doing this and call on people for their and humanity and compassion and kindness. Let’s talk about love, not about hate.

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3 Comments
here we go

3 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Susan

    September 9, 2020 at 6:12 pm

    Being honest with public is a real sign of leadership. Happy talk is failed leadership.

  2. Avatar

    Linda Condron

    September 9, 2020 at 8:24 pm

    I have been so proud to have you as our Mayor through all of this.You acted while Desantis basically did nothing

  3. Avatar

    Stephanie

    September 10, 2020 at 10:52 pm

    Desantis did a lot but nothing you agreed with.

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