Public concerns about Delta variant continue to pose challenges, island leaders say
It is rare for the organizations representing business owners and residents on Siesta Key to unite in a cause, as island leaders have pointed out over the years.
Yet, a Sarasota County Government decision in June has brought together the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce, the Siesta Key Association (SKA) and the Siesta Key Condominium Council in pleas for extending a county measure that was implemented in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
On June 18 — as The Sarasota News Leader has reported — the Siesta Chamber chair, Steve Cavanaugh, sent a letter to county Zoning Administrator Donna Thompson, expressing concern about a June 16 letter she had sent to businesses. Thompson had pointed out that a Temporary Use Permit (TUP) program would end on June 30.
“As you are aware,” Cavanaugh wrote Thompson, “many of the businesses have lost large amounts of revenue over the last 15 months as a result of the COVID-19 restrictions.” He was referring to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines recommending social distancing, along with scientific research showing people are less likely to get the virus if they are outdoors.
“Although sales are somewhat rebounding,” Cavanaugh continued, “there has not been sufficient amount of time to make up for the lost revenues. In fact,” he added, “most of the restaurants have permanently removed a portion of their indoor seating to maintain social distancing and are heavily reliant on the outdoor seating revenue generated via the TUP.”
Moreover, Cavanaugh stressed, “Customers continue to remain apprehensive about seating indoors and have expressed concerns about the spread of the Delta Variant.”
Nonetheless, county staff noted in a June 25 press release, “As state and federal COVID-19 executive orders start to expire, Sarasota County’s Planning and Development Services (PDS) will resume regular operations for issuing Temporary Use Permits (TUP) and their fees.”
Planning and Development “began temporarily allowing the use of outdoor seating and tents after the county commissioners unanimously approved a resolution [on May 6, 2020] to temporarily waive the $140 TUP fee,” the release added.
In alignment “with state and federal executive and emergency orders,” the release said, the TUP resolution was revised. Therefore, the release continued, with the county having lifted its COVID state of emergency earlier in June, “restaurants and business establishments were notified that tents and outdoor seating will need to be removed by June 30, 2021.”
On July 14, Russell Matthes, one of the owners of the Daiquiri Deck restaurants — including the original establishment in Siesta Village — wrote a letter to the county commissioners, pointing out that county staff had issued the restaurant owners a verbal warning the previous day that the Daiquiri Deck would be fined if its staff did not immediately remove its outdoor tables.
“We have relied on the additional seating to serve our guests in a safe and responsible [manner] by providing social distancing in an outdoor setting,” Matthes explained. “In fact, we have booked outdoor reservations for larger parties and special events throughout the upcoming holidays and well into next year.”
He added, “As you are aware the restaurant industry has been hit extremely hard during this Pandemic and now we are challenged with broken supply chains, labor shortages and rising cost of goods.”
Matthes pointed out that guests are reluctant to sit indoors, “especially with the influx of the Delta Variant. This is no time to be restricting our business by eliminating the ability for additional outdoor dining.”
Therefore, Matthes wrote, “We are respectfully requesting that Sarasota County reverses its decision to eliminate the TUP at this time, and work with individual businesses to allow for permitting these additional areas of service indefinitely.”
Two days after Matthes contacted the commissioners, the Condominium Council leaders included the body of the letter in an email blast to its members.
The email blast also included part of a letter that the Council said it had received from a well-known Siesta Key retail firm and former Siesta Key Chamber president:
“I think we all can agree that Covid and its effects have not completely left yet,” that letter began. “Our main customers and clients are tourists from other sensitive areas and I would assume that some of your members are in the older demographic. These people are not fully comfortable in crowded areas. There are some restaurants trying to space customers out and I feel it’s important that the County Commissioners continue to support allowing tables to be outside without being concerned with the normal code requirements.”
Although the letter writer added that it would not be appropriate for the TUP program to “go on forever,” the writer stressed the need to keep it in place at present.
Referring to that letter, the email blast said, “The Siesta Key Condominium Council thinks that this request is ‘right on’ and asks all to support this in any way you or your organization can imagine. The virus has not gone away and maintenance of the TUP seems to be a wise move at this time.”
The Council leaders also noted that they had included the county commissioners on the list of recipients of the email blast.
Then, on July 19, SKA President Catherine Luckner wrote to the commissioners on behalf of that nonprofit. “The community, especially within the Siesta Village area, is very concerned about outdoor dining being eliminated at this time. We are requesting your help with County Staff and request an extension or renewal of the Temporary Use Permit for all restaurants utilizing outdoor seating. This would need to be retroactive to July 1, 2021 to eliminate any fines that may have been issued,” Luckner added.
SKA leaders also are concerned about the Delta variant in the community, she pointed out.
In spite of the pleas, the Daiquiri Deck officially received a Notice of Violation on July 16, a copy of which co-owner Matthes provided to the News Leader. That is the first step in the Code Enforcement process to bring a person or business into compliance with county regulations.
The notice advised the restaurant owners to remove “all outdoor seating, tables and chairs in the rear of the business and restore the operation of the business as previously permitted on the Business Use Permit.”
It further warned the owners that if the situation were not resolved, a Special Code Enforcement Magistrate could fine the business up to $250 per day for each day the violation exists, with penalties up to $500 per cay possible for repeat violations.
The notice was signed by Susan Stahley, the primary Code Enforcement officer on Siesta Key.
Additionally, as a result of a public records request, the News Leader learned that Captain Curt’s Crab & Oyster Bar on Old Stickney Point Road submitted an application to the county Building Department on July 1 for an extension of what it called “our COVID TUPs.”
That email was signed by Rick Iverson, who identified himself as Captain Curt’s controller.
Iverson noted that he had discussed the issue with Zoning Administrator Thompson and one other county staff member.
In response to a News Leader request for county staff comments — including whether the potential exists for the TUP program to be extended — Michele Norton, assistant director of Planning and Development Services, wrote that only one Notice of Violation had been issued “at this time.” She added in a July 27 email: “[P]lease note that these countywide [TUPs] were not meant to be permanent and did not pose parking issues because of the reduced clientele at the time. The TUP had a final sunset date with the lifting of the State of Emergency, although staff extended that timeframe through the 4th of July weekend [to] at least get through that holiday. The expectation at this time is for the restaurants countywide to revert back to the approved seating and parking spaces. For those who can demonstrate the code required parking, an Alternative Parking Plan may be an avenue to add additional seating through a Zoning review and updated Business Use Permit.”
She was alluding to the fact that the county zoning regulations require that restaurants provide a specific number of parking spaces through a formula accounting for the number of tables.
Frustrations and pleas
During a July 23 telephone interview, Matthes of the Daiquiri Deck emphasized the challenges that he and his business partners are experiencing. Given the news about the spread of the Delta variant in Florida, he said, people will wait for outdoor tables instead of choosing to dine inside.
“We haven’t even put our full count of tables inside,” he added.
After he sent his letter to the commissioners,” Matthes said, a couple responded, telling him they would look into the situation.
The commissioners began their annual summer break the week of July 19 and will not officially be back in the office until Aug. 16.
Among the public records the News Leader received this week, it found a July 15 email from Commissioner Michael Moran, replying to Matthes. “Getting update from staff,” Moran wrote. “Back to you when I know more.”
“They need to make a move on this,” Matthes emphasized, “for public safety alone.”
On July 23, the News Leader learned through the public records request, that Norton of Planning and Development wrote the following to the county commissioners:
“[S]taff has reached out to the Siesta Key Association ([Catherine] Luckner) in response to the request to renew/extend the outdoor seating TUP’s that were issued to restaurants during COVID, that have since sunset with the lifting of the State of Emergency. Please note that staff has been working with local restaurants that wish to have additional outdoor seating through Alternative Parking Plans, maintaining consistency with the Code.”
Matthes told the News Leader that he and his co-owners can look for other parking options that would enable them to comply with the county regulations — as Norton had noted. However, he added, “We need time to do so.”
Moreover, Matthes pointed out, “It normally takes six to eight months to get a [county] permit for anything.” That fact, he indicated, makes it all the more critical for county leaders to re-implement the TUP provisions.
As a member of the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce board, Matthes also explained that he is spearheading the effort to try to achieve that goal.
Then Matthes talked about the rarity of the business and residential organizations uniting on this issue. “We have basically unanimous agreement to extend the TUPs.” Thus, he said, the commissioners “should be listening.”
The last time he could recall such a united front on an island issue, he added, was more than a decade ago, when a movement began to rid the Key of the multitude of newspaper boxes in a wide variety of areas. He spearheaded that initiative, as well, he said. It resulted in a change in county regulations and a far better look for the island landscape, business owners and residents agreed at the time.
Exchanges of viewpoints and ideas about assistance
On July 20, Matt Osterhoudt, director of Planning and Development Services, sent Zoning Administrator Thompson an email with the subject line “TUP concerns.” That followed an exchange between Thompson and Matthes on July 19, with Thompson explaining to Matthes that staff had received the Siesta Chamber letter.
Thompson told Matthes, “The Commission has not given any direction to extend these permits …”
In a separate email exchange with Matthes on July 19, Thompson acknowledged, “I understand that some patrons still wish to maintain the social distancing aspect, but it is no longer required.”
In another email to Osterhoudt, dated July 20, Thompson added, “I don’t fully agree with the statement that the additional outside seating is needed for the restaurants to survive. People are slowly getting back to normal with the vaccines, and it a personal choice as to whether or not they are willing to eat in a restaurant or stay home.”
In forwarding to Osterhoudt the earlier email she had sent to Matthes, Thompson told Osterhoudt, “Restaurants and bars in the SKOD are required to provide one [parking] space per 50 [square feet] of eating, drinking and waiting area.”
She was referring to the Siesta Key Overlay District zoning regulations.
Osterhoudt responded to that email on July 20, asking whether the Daiquiri Deck could achieve its goal of retaining the outdoor dining space through permitting or obtaining a variance.
Thompson replied, “Any of the restaurants can go through a permitting process to put outside seating in — some may need [to engage in a formal site and development process with county staff] if they don’t have a paved area for it or they could put it on grass if it’s on their property. The difficult issue, especially for Siesta Key, is any time you add seats/floor area you then have to come into conformance with the new parking regulations that are more stringent than [those on] the mainland. Siesta Key adopted a requirement for 1 space per 50 [square feet] of eating, drinking or waiting area, regardless of the number of seats. Any increase in seating would require compliance with this standard.”
Thompson added, “The Daiquiri Deck already increased their eating, drinking and waiting area by adding a patio on the ground level during COVID under the cover of their COVID TUP and got stopped. They then applied for an Alternative Parking Plan demonstrating that they would be sharing parking with an adjacent property that did not have overlapping hours and would be removing seats from their upper story. While I found it hard to believe that they would give up inside seating, I had to take their word and stipulated the approval that if complaints were received that there wasn’t sufficient parking we would revisit the Alternative Parking Plan approval.”
After receiving Thompson’s response, Osterhoudt emailed Norton, the assistant director of Planning and Development, on July 22, asking her to “reach out to Mr. Russell Matthes” regarding the situation Thompson had described. Osterhoudt added that it appeared, based on Thompson’s information, “[T]here are pathways forward and we are glad to work on those with him.”
He also emailed Sandra LeGay, manager of the Code Enforcement Division, alerting her to the efforts underway with the Daiquiri Deck. She assured Osterhoudt that her staff had not issued an Affidavit of Violation — the next step after Notice of Violation — and would refrain from doing so “until further direction.”