Street Festivals Returning With An Emphasis On Local Businesses
The coronavirus pandemic put a halt to many recurring outdoor events in the greater Tampa Bay region, but some are making a comeback, with a new focus: local businesses.
The city of Safety Harbor’s “Third Friday” street celebration will return this week for the first time since February of last year.
The event, which regularly attracts hundreds of community members to Main Street and the surrounding area, was paused in accordance with Pinellas County’s mandate against large gatherings because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The community really looks forward to Third Friday, it's been going on for years,” said Susan Peterson, President and CEO of the Safety Harbor Chamber of Commerce. “Every month it's just the event that brings the community together.”
At the start of the pandemic, county commissioners declared a local state of emergency. Statewide restrictions on gatherings or large-scale events were lifted in September, but the county maintained enforcement of its mandate.
To hold large-scale events, organizers were required to prepare and follow an approved COVID-19 safety plan. Mandatory face coverings, social distancing, and symptom screening were among the provisions.
“The safety precautions that had to be abided by made it impossible for us to close down Main Street and hold the event,” Peterson said.
Those requirements were lifted after Gov. Ron DeSantis’ May 3 declaration suspended all local government orders related to the pandemic.
“So now we’re able to do it, and everyone’s really looking forward to it,” Peterson said, adding that the break gave them time to reflect on how to make the event better.
Initially, Third Friday was organized by the city of Safety Harbor. Organizers brought in vendors that would set up tents selling food or other items, varying from pet supplies to artwork, jewelry, and home decor.
However, with the pandemic hitting local restaurants and shops hard, the Chamber of Commerce asked to be allowed to run the event going forward. They hope to give local businesses a greater stake in the celebration.
“They're really having the restaurants and the shops more involved instead of outside vendors coming in,” said Rachel Wilson, owner of Gigglewaters Social Club and Screening Room.
“It's the first time, for me at least, that the restaurant owners in Safety Harbor have really worked together. And so I'm so grateful for the opportunity to work together with them and put on something special.”
Wilson’s business was thriving in February of last year, before the pandemic.
“About a week prior to the shutdown, we were cruising. We were up 30% of our prior year and we were about to start expanding; we were looking at franchising; we were in the middle of a capital raise; we were kind of on top of the world,” Wilson said. “And then everything stopped really suddenly.”
She had to lay off all of the restaurant’s part-time employees and switched from in-person dining to to-go meals. With the changes, the restaurant was only bringing in 10 to 15 percent of its normal business.
“So I was just sitting every day, in a restaurant, waiting for something to happen,” Wilson said. “We really had a lot of anxiety around what was going on, and so we wanted to find some way to do something with our day.”
The restaurant began preparing free meals for first responders. Wilson said they fed every paramedic at Sunstar Paramedics, every hospital in the tri-county area, every nearby police station, and nearly every fire station.
They also fed essential workers at Publix and Lowes, and hosted free lunch drive-thru events for people in the community who were unemployed.
“We just tried to reach out to the community and use what we had, which was food, and take care of people, and it was a good use of our time,” Wilson said.
“And we stayed really really busy with just feeding the community; our whole business model kind of shifted. And it was a neat experience. We did it every day and I couldn't love it more.”
For Wilson, the return of Third Friday, and its focus on local businesses, is refreshing.
“I certainly want everyone to benefit from any kind of street event, but I think that for the businesses, it's really fun to be part of planning something special for Third Friday and not just having to be business as usual,” Wilson said. “We're all looking at what we can do to be out of our restaurant and out on the street and how can we bring some of our experience outside.”
From 6 to 10 p.m. Friday, Gigglewaters and other restaurants and shops will set up booths in front of their locations. Throughout the night, live bands will perform at various stages along the street.
“I think that there's a sense of community around this event in particular because it's our neighborhood, it's our friends and family,” Wilson said.
“It is a time for all of us at (Safety) Harbor and the surrounding communities to just exhale after a really long, hard year where we haven't been able to have this kind of fun together.”
Other cities in the area have also begun resuming outdoor events.
Tarpon Springs plans to resume its First Friday celebration in July, in addition to other local events like Athens By Night, Hippie Fest, the Sponge Docks Arts and Crafts Show, and the Tarpon Springs Seafood Festival.
Dunedin is hosting a variety of summer markets, Bradenton has relaunched its First Friday Art Walks, and the city of Sarasota has a summer schedule full of art events, music festivals, and craft fairs.