St. Petersburg City Council members got a sneak peek at how administrators hope to gradually reopen city recreation centers and libraries during a workshop this week.
There’s no final decision, but Mike Jefferis, leisure services administrator, wants to prioritize opening computer labs at the city libraries and child care programs run by the Parks & Recreation department.
“We know that to get this ship called the economy moving we really need to have that child care. People can’t work without that child care. So we know that’s paramount,” Jefferis said at an online City Council committee of the whole meeting Tuesday. “I don’t exactly know what that will look like. But if we don’t start preparing for summer now, then we won’t be ready when we are allowed to open.”
Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin cautioned city council members — and whomever was listening in on the online meeting — that Jefferis was not making an official announcement and plans for reopening have not yet been finalized.
St. Petersburg’s libraries, recreation centers and community centers have been closed since mid-March, and child care programs were suspended effective March 16 to control the spread of Covid-19. City golf course and parks remain open, although dog parks, skateparks, and tennis, handball, pickleball, basketball and volleyball courts are closed.
During the workshop to review the preliminary budget for fiscal year 2021 starting Oct. 1, city council members asked for an update on the facilities that fall under leisure services.
Libraries have successfully lived up to the challenges presented by the Covid crisis, Jefferis said. The buildings are closed but library resources are online and electronic readership has increased, he said.
Under the first phase of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ plan to reopen Florida, libraries can reopen at 25 percent capacity. Jefferis said he wants to open computer labs at the libraries first, to meet the greatest need.
“With the digital divide, that connectivity is where people are needing library services most,” Jefferis said. “Almost all of our resources are available online, but if you don’t have that connectivity then you can’t enjoy that resource.”
The partial library reopenings would be geographically spread throughout the city. Work stations would be cleaned and sanitized, Jefferis said.
While plans are not final, City Council members welcomed the update.
“I think the Covid-19 crisis has presented us opportunities as well as challenges,” Council member Darden Rice said. “I think the issues with the digital divide and the closure of schools and having so many students at home put us in a position to look at the front and center roles that city libraries can play in addressing digital inequalities, and also ways we can think outside the box to provide more support and more services to all of the families of St. Petersburg.”
Opening libraries would be a help to job-hunters looking for online job postings, Council member Robert Blackmon said.
“I think now more than ever we’re seeing what an incredible role our libraries can play, even when the doors are physically closed, the libraries have remained a resource for many people. And now we also see what we miss by having the doors closed,” Council member Gina Driscoll said. “We should look at this pandemic time as an opportunity to rethink the way that some of our library services are being offered and what type of services are more important to people as we move forward.”
The city’s parks have been heavily used city-wide in the past several weeks, and the city’s three golf courses have been very busy as well, Jefferis said.
The city has made some operational adjustments at the golf courses. They’re not accepting cash, just credit and debit cards. Food and beverage operations are scaled down and golf cart rentals are limited to one rider per cart.
Technology innovation also is playing a role.
“We have an invention that First Tee is working on that allows you to remove your golf ball from the cup without touching the flag or anything else, just using the putter,” Jefferis said.
The preliminary FY 2021 city budget calls for spending about $55.6 million on leisure services, or about 18.6 percent of the total proposed $299.5 million in spending for the next fiscal year. Administration officials say the proposed budget likely will change, as the city gets a better idea of the decline in sales tax revenue anticipated due to business closures during the pandemic.