One-third of remaining affected restaurants operate on Siesta Key
In early May 2020, with the COVID-19 pandemic well underway, the Sarasota County Commission agreed to a process that would help restaurants and retail stores comply with an executive order that Gov. Ron DeSantis had signed.
DeSantis had decreed that all but non-essential businesses be closed in April in an effort to halt the transmission of the coronavirus. In May, however, he gave businesses the option of opening with limited capacity.
Sarasota County Resolution 2020-101, which then-board Chair Michael Moran signed on May 6, 2020, noted that restaurants could reopen dine-in services with full outdoor seating, but indoor seating was capped at 25% of a building’s capacity.
Retail businesses also were allowed to reopen at 25% capacity, based on the governor’s new Executive Order.
“[T]o assist in the reopening and economic recovery of local businesses,” as the county resolution put it, the commissioners authorized the streamlining of the process for a business to get a Temporary Use Permit (TUP) from the county, so owners and managers could spread their operations outdoors.
At that time, based on U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines, people felt they were less likely to contract COVID-19 if they were outside.
The resolution also waived the TUP fees through July 31. County Administrator Jonathan Lewis later extended the latter deadline through Sept. 30, which was the end of the 2020 fiscal year. However, in his July 29, 2020 emergency administrative order, he added, “This … shall remain in force until an expiration of a declared state of emergency or until further action by the Board of County Commissioners on or before September 30, 2020.”
The News Leader found no record of subsequent commission action.
During the May 6, 2020 County Commission meeting, Lewis pointed out that businesses wanted to erect tents and set up tables and chairs outdoors.
Commissioner Nancy Detert called the TUP plans “an innovative way of working with the business community.”
Commissioner Christian Ziegler talked of the fact that restaurants with large parking lots could make use of that space to serve additional people.
In response to a question from Ziegler, Lewis said he expected a TUP could be issued the same day county staff received an application.
County Planning and Development Services Department staff created a Sarasota County COVID 19 Outdoor Dining & Retail Display Temporary Use/Tent Approval Packetto help customers.
That included a checklist produced by the county Fire Department, to ensure businesses followed fire prevention guidelines.
Siesta Village was among the areas in the unincorporated portions of Sarasota County where restaurateurs readily took advantage of the TUP option.
Slightly more than 13 months later — on June 16, just after 8:30 a.m. — county Zoning Administrator Donna Thompson sent an email to all the remaining holders of such TUPs.
“As you are aware,” she wrote, “you were issued a Temporary Use Permit to allow for tents with outdoor seats so that you could reopen your restaurant during the COVID State of Emergency. These TUPs were issued so that you were able to open at full capacity, utilizing indoor and outdoor seating and maintaining social distancing for your patrons. As a result of the Governor lifting his State of Emergency Declaration, and Sarasota County lifting their subsequent State of Emergency Declaration, these tents and extra seating must be removed by Wednesday, June 30, 2021,” she added, with emphasis. “Failure to comply may result in Code Enforcement action,” she pointed out.
Two days later, Steve Cavanaugh, chair of the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce, sent a letter to Thompson, letting her know that the TUP decision had been brought to the attention of the Chamber board.
“The businesses of Siesta Key, specifically restaurants, have expressed concern about the County’s decision to terminate the Temporary Use Permits effective June 30, 2021,” Cavanaugh wrote. “As you are aware,” he continued, “many of the businesses have lost large amounts of revenue over the last 15 months as a result of the COVID-19 restrictions. Although sales are somewhat rebounding, there has not been sufficient amount of time to make up for the lost revenues. In fact, 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.”
Cavanaugh added, “Customers continue to remain apprehensive about seating indoors and have expressed concerns about the spread of the Delta Variant. [The Delta variant is a mutation of the coronavirus that has alarmed health officials because it appears to be even more contagious, and it may cause more severe illness for unvaccinated persons who contract it.] Many of the restaurants already have reservations booked throughout the summer and holidays for larger parties with the intent on using their additional outdoor seating,” Cavanaugh added.
Therefore, he wrote, “We are respectfully requesting that the County reconsiders terminating the TUP’s at this time and extend them at least through the summer or preferably until the end of the year.”
During a June 24 telephone interview, Cavanaugh told The Sarasota News Leader that representatives of the Daiquiri Deck had contacted the Siesta Chamber after receiving the notice from Thompson. He did now know how many businesses on Siesta might be affected by the county directive, he added, but he knew many of them did take advantage of the opportunity to spread into outdoor spaces.
When the News Leader speculated that a number of visitors to the island still may be reluctant to dine indoors, Cavanaugh replied, “You better believe it!”
“We just want to do what’s right by our businesses,” he said.
Moreover, Cavanaugh noted, though the county TUP process last year was prompted by the pandemic, the use of outdoor spaces has made Siesta Village “more pedestrian-friendly, which is awesome.”
When the News Leader submitted a public records request this week to learn whether any other organizations or business owners had contacted the county about the coming end to the special TUPs, staff provided only one other email that turned up through a search.
The writer of that missive was Kevin Skiest, co-owner of Blasé Bistro in Southside Village. (In July 2019, when the Sarasota Herald-Tribune announced the plans for the opening of that restaurant, the newspaper reported the bistro’s connection to Blasé Café and Martini Bar on Ocean Boulevard in Siesta Village. Blasé Café also has had a tent set up for outdoor dining, as well as entertainment, as noted on its Facebook page.)
Skiest sent his email to Thompson in the Zoning Administration office, too.
“This is a REALLY bad idea!” he wrote of the TUP decision. “The only reason restaurants are surviving is due to outside dining which is not going to change. Covid is not gone and there will continue to be new chemical warfare happening forever.”
He added, “People, myself included [do] not go to crowded inside places.
“Downside is more closed businesses, severe drop in sales tax revenue and lost jobs at local and state level,” he continued. “If the county has the power to keep this county strong they should not make everyone take their [additional] space away.”
County staff response
In response to a News Leader request for comments about the notice Thompson sent out on June 16, staff of the Planning and Development Services Department, which includes Zoning Administration, offered the following statement on June 24:
“As background, the Temporary Use Permits (TUP) for outdoor dining during Covid began on May 6, 2020 with an expiration date of July 31, 2020. On July 9, 2020, the sunset date was amended to align with the expiration/lifting of the State of Emergency related to Covid.”
Staff did notify the “permit holders and business community” of that extension, the response continued.
“With the lifting of the State of Emergency on June 1, 2021,” the statement continued, “staff identified 9 permit holders that are still utilizing the outdoor dining TUP,” and staff notified them on June 16 that they would need to remove the tents and seating by June 30.
Additionally, the statement noted, “Staff has received a total of 3 inquires, two to allow outdoor dining through the 4th of July which was ultimately accomplished with a new TUP, and one for permanent outdoor seating. Staff will be working with [the latter] business owner on how to accomplish this goal.”
Finally, the Planning and Development staff pointed out, “During the pandemic 24 temporary TUP’s were approved. There are 9 currently still utilizing the outdoor seating,” including three on Siesta Key.