Three local governments, three ideas on ‘back to normal’
The mantra of getting “back to normal” amid the Covid-19 pandemic is playing out in different ways across local governments.
The Hillsborough County Emergency Planning Group has begun implementing an economic recovery plan. The Pinellas County administrator has a general strategy for lifting restrictions that have been imposed in the wake of the pandemic. The St. Petersburg City Council will start talking about recovery at an April 30 meeting.
The local discussions mirror state and national debates about restarting an economy that has seen unemployment soar, retail sales in some sectors plunge and the stock market fluctuate wildly amid business shutdowns and stay-at-home orders designed to control the spread of the virus.
Public health officials have advised that Florida likely won’t see a peak in the number of Covid-19 cases until late April or early May. Those health officials generally have urged caution in moving too fast to allow schools and businesses that have been closed to reopen, or to lift restrictions on the use of public spaces such as beaches and parks .
Three different strategies were discussed at local government meetings Thursday.
City Council Chairman Ed Montanari said he wants to work with the city administration to start discussions about getting the economy back on line. Montanari cited plans by governors in Utah and California to start opening up their economies, and said it would be wise to start talking about that in St. Petersburg as well.
Montanari’s proposal to put the discussion on the agenda for the Committee of the Whole meeting on April 30 was endorsed by Council member Darden Rice.
“It is difficult in these times to figure out how we get back to normal until we have adequate testing. But we can discuss that on April 30,” Rice said. “I think it’s important to figure out wherever possible whatever we can do to help get our businesses back in good shape.”
Mayor Rick Kriseman suggested it’s too soon to restart the economy right now.
“We are putting an advisory group together … and we intend to have a member of council as part of that group. We’ll also intend to have community leaders, health care professionals , members of the private sector as part of that group … who can advise us on a plan for reopening the economy,” Kriseman said. “It’s got to be based heavily on science, on data.”
Kriseman offered similar thoughts later Thursday on Twitter.
St. Pete is doing better than many as it relates to the percentage of positive #COVID19 tests. We’re faring better than many smaller communities. We’re ahead of the state. But we cannot relax. We are closely monitoring data and we are mindful of what we don’t know. Stay focused.
— Rick Kriseman (@Kriseman) April 16, 2020
City Council member Lisa Wheeler-Bowman agreed. “We don’t want to open the economy too soon. I’m comfortable with it, once we get data showing our numbers are dropping, but we’re just in a scary time,” Wheeler-Bowman said.
While the city needs to proceed cautiously, April 30 would be a good time to start the discussion, said Council member Gina Driscoll.
Council members who were present on the video call voted unanimously to add a discussion to the April 30 COW agenda.
Related story: How the city of St. Petersburg is functioning under Covid-19
During an update to the Pinellas County Board of County Commissioners, Administrator Barry Burton went over the strategies the county has put in place to control the spread of the virus — including a Safer at Home order enacted March 26 and closing non-essential businesses as part of the state Stay at Home order on April 3.
While current data shows hospital capacity is adequate, the number of cases is still growing and more testing is needed, Burton said. He is still looking for a sustained reduction in cases for at least 14 days, expanded testing capacity and assurances that hospitals and emergency personnel are properly equipped to treat all patients requiring hospitalizations without resorting to crisis measures.
Burton outlined the steps that should occur before Pinellas County eases restrictions:
• Gov. Ron DeSantis’ executive stay at home order is revoked or modified, and the Board of County Commissioners reconsiders or modifies its own Safer at Home order.
• Confirmation that declining cases, testing and hospital capacity are met. “We need conditions on the ground and the indicators identified to be the determining factors as we make decisions,” Burton said, adding there also needs to be specific strategies for pools and public beaches to open safely.
• If conditions change, the county need to be prepared to reinstate its former orders or impose stricter guidelines, he said.
The Tampa Bay Economic Development Council has been charged with leading an economic recovery task force.
It won’t be the typical strategic planning process, Craig Richard, president and CEO, told the Hillsborough Emergency Planning Group. Instead, the task force wants to rapidly deploy some quick strategies that could be used as a guidepost by Hillsborough County and the city of Tampa to re-employ and retrain dislocated workers, retain and support local businesses and develop recovery strategies and programs for both the short and longer term.
There will be three working groups, with the EDC convening key industry, public sector, academic, association and nonprofit leaders to determine specific recovery recommendations, Richard said.
CareerSource Tampa Bay and Hillsborough Community College will take the lead on a working group identifying training needs for occupations that are in demand and also taking an inventory of the types of positions lost during this crisis, then matching the skills needed and the demands for hiring. They’ll also be charged with identifying the delivery agents for these training programs, Richard said.
The EDC, the Tampa Bay Chamber and Visit Tampa Bay will head a working group identifying federal, state and local resources available to help businesses as well as the gaps that the existing resources fail to address.
The third working group, led by city and county economic development staff, will identify the capital needs of local businesses. “There are a number of federal stimulus dollars that will be hitting the county and the city and we want to make sure these dollars are being allocated in a way that expedites the recovery, with the county and city economic development staff developing guidelines for how these allocations should occur,” Richard said. “Also, similar to other recessionary times when infrastructure projects were developed to help expedite the recovery, this would be an important time to identify infrastructure projects, whether that involves communications, sewers or transportation issues that we can emphasize during this recovery process.”
The task force will make recommendations, but is not responsible for creating and implementing policy — that’s up to elected officials, Richard said.
“The objective is restarting our local economy. In doing so, this is going to require a delicate balance between the needs of businesses as well as the health and safety of our workers,” Richard said.
On the statewide level, DeSantis said Wednesday he is assembling a task force to focus on the state’s next steps. He said the task force will address the “resurgence and reopening” of Florida, spanning a wide range of economic sectors. He cited small business, agriculture, restaurants, tourism, large events and conventions, recreation, international travel and education, as well as employer access to Covid-19 testing.
DeSantis wants to tap elected officials, people in business and in education for the task force.
As of mid-day Saturday, DeSantis has not yet announced members of the task force.
April 20, 2020at8:18 am
Meanwhile the still closed beaches around Redington Sunday were seeing people pushing aside “beach is closed” to get their beach carts thru to sand. Similarly, the islands in Boca Ciega Bay by Johns Pass were packed with boaters pulling up on sand and partying. Disgusting, but mostly frightening.