NEW PORT RICHEY — A short-lived idea to help downtown bars and restaurants stir up added business did not go as planned, according to the City Council.
The effect COVID-19 is having on the service industry is well-documented at this point. Recent meetings between city representatives and downtown business owners were scheduled to produce ideas that would allow these businesses to operate at a limited, safe capacity.
What came out of those meetings was an idea to cordon off Railroad Square, leaving it open to foot traffic and tables for socially distanced outdoor dining or having a couple of drinks.
What happened as the proposal was first put into practice on the weekend of July 18 left city leaders disappointed.
“We’re doing the best we can to help businesses out any way we can,” Mayor Rob Marlowe said during a July 23 phone interview, “but this was something that just failed spectacularly.”
The reason for the failure, according to city leaders during the July 21 regular council meeting, was the amount of people congregating in the area, a lack of social distancing and a lack of people wearing face coverings when necessary.
“We made it quite clear to all the business owners what we were trying to do to help them,” said Councilman Jeff Starkey, who raised the issue toward the end of the council meeting. “From what I understand, one business owner kind of ruined it for everybody.”
Marlowe stated that he was joined by City Manager Debbie Manns and Police Chief Kim Bogart during a recent meeting with business owners to go over the Railroad Square plan.
“We laid it down in no uncertain terms that this was strictly on a trial basis,” Marlowe said during the council meeting, “that it was not to throw a street party or do anything else that was going to have large crowds gathering. We simply wanted to make it possible so that the people could buy their beverages and go out and sit at a table, socially distanced, in the Railroad Square right-of-way.
“There was no misunderstanding that that’s what we intended,” Marlowe continued. “I told them point-blank that Ms. Manns had standing authority from (city council) … that if it got out of hand, if it was abused, she had the authority to shut it down right then and there. She didn’t shut them down Saturday night, but she did send the notice.”
Councilman Chopper Davis did not disagree with suspending the Railroad Square idea but did suggest the city continue exploring ways to make the situation better.
“If we move forward with this, I would like to deal with it on a case-by-case basis because I don’t want everybody on Railroad Square to be punished because of one,” Davis said. “If another comes with a different approach and a different attitude, I would like us to at least entertain it.”
If businesses and patrons refuse to comply with safety standards, however, Marlowe said these opportunities will not return.
“It sounded good in theory but in practice it just didn’t work,” Marlowe said over the phone. “I am very concerned about the folks who are not taking this seriously.
“I just don’t have any sympathy for them at this point,” he said during the council meeting. “They knew the rules and chose to flaunt them. It creates a hazardous situation for the residents of the city of New Port Richey. We are in a pandemic and I’m sorry they couldn’t take advantage of what we tried to help them with by offering them a bit of a lifeline to keep their businesses going, but it is what it is. It’s just unfortunate. They could have kept it under control. We were assured, the (police) chief and Ms. Manns and I, were assured they were going to keep it under control and that did not happen.”