BarFly, minus outdoor seating, on April 1, 2020. (Photo/Kathryn Malaxos)

City Aid on Hold for Safety Harbor Businesses

in city hall/news/photos

The Safety Harbor Mayor and City Commissioners say they want to offer financial help to local businesses hurt by the recent temporary closure enforced to slow the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the Monday night virtual meeting, commissioners indicated the city is willing to invest more than $200,000 to provide aid.

But they don’t have a program yet, and it won’t be coming until after the May 18 meeting. Although commissioners mentioned restaurants, the types of businesses where the vouchers could be used was not determined. Also not determined was whether the utility credits would be for businesses or for businesses and households.

Also on hold until the May 18 meeting is a proposal by Mayor Joe Ayoub to close off a portion of Main Street to allow more seating for restaurants.

Restaurants were allowed to reopen this week for inside and outside service but only at 25 percent capacity and with 6-foot social distancing.

Under consideration for offering financial aid:

  • Sending every Safety Harbor household a $25 voucher that could only be used at a Safety Harbor business.
  • Providing a one time utility discount credit to Safety Harbor businesses.

“I’d like to do something but I don’t know exactly what,” said Mayor Joe Ayoub, who added that he has been brainstorming with City Manager Matt Spoor for over a month on different options.

He said that the program should be simple, straightforward and easy to administer by city staff.

Commissioner Carlos Diaz, who first suggested the voucher program, said that providing the $25 vouchers would result in possibly doubling the impact. He said this would encourage people to go out, and many would spend more than $25, so the economic impact could be double.

“Obviously, there would be some vouchers that won’t be used but I think it’s the most just way of doing it,” he said. “You help the residents, and you also help the businesses.”

Commissioner Cliff Merz agreed that the city should do something but would be prudent to wait to see what happens with a $35 million financial aid program for small businesses that Pinellas County has launched. Beginning today, small business owners in Pinellas can apply for a $5,000 grants.

Commissioner Andy Zodrow said he was in favor of any program to help and was leaning toward utility vouchers but Commissioner Diaz made a good point about how $25 might result in a larger economic impact.

He urged a cautious approach to make sure whatever plan the city makes is a just one. He said he wanted more input from Safety Harbor citizens and businesses.

Commissioner Nancy Besore suggested that if the $25 voucher program is implemented, the voucher should be transferable so it could be donated to others who might need it more.

Commissioners discussed the potential issues with vouchers such as the administrative costs, whether many vouchers might go unused, whether some local businesses might not want to accept a voucher, and whether some popular businesses might benefit more than others,

On the utility credits, questions were raised about how to determine which businesses would get a utility credit. Would it be the same for all businesses? Would every home in the city get a credit?

The commissioners directed City Manager Matt Spoor to gather information on the potential programs.

On the proposal to close off Main Street to provide more outside dining, Mayor Ayoub had wanted to try it on Friday and Saturday nights beginning this week or at least by May 15. Several Florida cities, including Tampa, have already decided to close off streets for expanded outdoor dining.

Commissioner Merz was opposed to doing it before seeing how it works in other cities. He also said it might result in not meeting social distancing goals if too many people were coming out.

Commissioner Zodrow said that while he is in favor of the concept, he didn’t want it to result in creating a Third Friday festival atmosphere that would lead problems.

Walt spent 35 years as a reporter, feature writer. TV critic and columnist for The Tampa Tribune. Prior to that he worked in the public relations office at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and as a reporter for The Greenville (SC) News. He and his wife, Debbie, have lived in Safety Harbor for 10 years. He also taught media writing courses at the University of Tampa. Since moving here, he has been active with the Safety Harbor Art and Music Center, hosting a monthly storytelling night.