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Coronavirus Spreads Concern Through Tampa Bay's Small Business Community

A man walks by an empty patio outside of The Tavern
Delaney Brown
WUSF Public Media
As the University of South Florida campuses prepare to move classes online through April 5, Tavern co-owner Stephanie Bixler says they're preparing for a major drop in business.

Local businesses are starting to feel the impact of coronavirus.

As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urges people to continue social distancing, some local businesses are seeing a traffic slow down as a result.

The Tavern at Bayboro is basically an institution at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg campus – students, professors, and local workers frequent the establishment for their open-mic nights and grouper sandwiches.

But with spring break this week, followed by online-only classes through at least April 5, Tavern co-owner Stephanie Bixler is preparing for a major drop in business.

Woman pours a beer from the tap
Credit Delaney Brown / WUSF Public Media
WUSF Public Media
"At this point it's a little bit frightening," The Tavern at Bayboro co-owner Stephanie Bixler says of coronavirus. "We have to look at the big picture and we have to be grateful that we're all still healthy and that hopefully these measures are going to keep us healthy."

"We'll just be staffing less," said Bixler. "It's definitely going to hurt our employees. That's my biggest concern, is that our employees -  being a part of a small business - not having enough resources to pay their bills."

Bixler said that while they hope the school shut down lasts only the two weeks, they're preparing for the possibility that classes will be cancelled for the rest of the semester.

Melanie Cade is owner of Tampa's Mojo Books and Records. She said that as concerns about the spread of coronavirus have grown, she's also seen traffic at her store slow down.

"It's tough because we don't know exactly one day to the next whether people will still want to come in," said Cade. "There seems to be different ideas surrounding how much distancing there should be and the best ways to handle things." 

Three employees stand behind a counter chatting
Credit Delaney Brown / WUSF Public Media
WUSF Public Media
Mojo Books and Records owner Melanie Cade said her biggest concern is for her staff should the store have to close its door due to pubic concern about the coronavirus.

Visit Tampa Bay President and CEO Santiago Corrada said in a statement that while it’s too early to put a number on the impact, disruption of spring break travel plans will be feltby the local tourism community.

“March is our busiest month, so the impact will be significant, but it will be a while before we have solid figures,” said Corrada.

"In the meantime, we encourage Florida residents who are healthy and taking proper precautions to staycation locally during Spring Break as a way to support the many small businesses that make up much of our tourism economy.”

READ MORE: See How Coronavirus Is Affecting Tampa Tourism

Employees at both Mojo Bookstore and The Tavern have been instructed to step-up their sanitization protocol.

At The Tavern, Bixler said that in addition to thier usual cleaning procedures, employees are constantly wiping down anything customers may come in contact with like menus and salt and pepper shakers, and sanitizing cooking stations and tabletops with bleach rather than their usual cleaning mixture.

Outside of taking extra care to clean, both business owners say there's not much else for them to do. 

Man pulls glove tightly over his hand
Credit Delaney Brown / WUSF Public Media
WUSF Public Media
Employees at The Tavern switch gloves often and sanitize the cooking stations with bleach to prevent the spread of disease.

"Obviously we all want to help prevent the spread to vulnerable people," said Cade. " At the same time, obviously we don't want to go into a full-blown recession or come out of this with a lot of our small businesses on the brink."

While there's the possibility of having to temporarily close up shop, Cade called on state legislators to help small business owners deal with the economic fallout of the coronavirus.

“I know there's been talk surrounding maybe something to assist with any staff who would be impacted by any loss of hours or closures or for people who get the virus to have some sort of backup, especially for small businesses,” said Cade.

RELATED: WUSF's complete coronavirus coverage

On Friday, Governor Ron DeSantis announced the release of the Business Damage Assessment Survey, to measure the impact of COVID-19 on Florida’s local businesses.

Managed by the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, the survey is meant to guide state economic relief programs, though there is currently plan for the dispersion of resources.

Bixler said that type of government help could be invaluable.

“I think that businesses that need it would be incredibly grateful and should take advantage of it,” said Bixler. “I think that it’s super important to continue to look out for the little guy.”

Delaney Brown is a radio news intern for the fall of 2019.
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