As customers stay away, driven by beach conditions, cutbacks in operating hours and staff layoffs begin to mount.
The Beach Bazaar in Siesta Key Village normally leaves its door wide open to welcome customers, but for the last couple of weeks, the doors have frequently been closed, particularly when the smell of decaying fish nearby has been the worst.
General Manager Wendall Jacobsen said very few people have been walking through the shop’s doors anyway since this summer's red tide outbreak began. Sales are down by 35% year over year, prompting Jacobsen to cut staff to curtail expenses.
“We still want to be open and offer something to do for any visitors that are here in town,” Jacobsen said.
Stores, restaurants and hotels throughout Siesta Key have been reporting similar losses or worse, and some small businesses have been forced to close for a few days. Red tide, and its smelly effects, have been critical along the Sarasota County coastline since late July and early August, essentially slamming the door on late-summer business.
Experts say it's hard to predict or understand when the bloom might ease up.
The Blasé Café and Martini Bar is normally open seven days a week but recently cut its operations to Thursday through Sunday. Owner Cynthia Breslin said her sales are down by 90% year over year and is encouraging her wait staff to file for unemployment. Breslin’s business partner, Kevin Skiest, reported days of no business at all. The restaurant typically has a lively atmosphere with live music every night, but Breslin has also had to lay off entertainers and turned to discounts such as extended happy hours or free companion dinners. Still, the smell keeps away visitors.
“You expect business to be down this time a year, but I am better off closing my doors than spending what it costs me to be open,” Breslin said. “There’s no possible way to break even with this mess.”
Small businesses affected by red tide in Sarasota County can apply for the Florida Small Business Emergency Bridge Loan Program, which provides short-term, interest-free loans of up to $50,000 to businesses experiencing economic loss. But Breslin has no interest in a loan.
“It’s shameful that the government is offering us a bridge loan,” she said. “I just want reimbursement.”
Breslin also changed the menu to accommodate customers wary of eating fish from the Gulf of Mexico. She prefers to support local fisherman but has been sourcing her fish from New England.
According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, it is safe to eat local fish as long as they are filleted.
Red tide misconceptions have also affected business at Spearfish Grille, a restaurant in the south end of Siesta Key that has been open for five months. The restaurant had been busy for its first four months before business abruptly took a dive. Chef James Wofford said he is preparing 60% fewer meals compared to last month.
“People think that because the red tide is out there, that all fish are affected by it,” said Wofford. “Our fish is coming from at least 50 miles offshore. Black grouper, for example, are coming from deep water and is not harmed by red tide. I'd like people to realize we can still make you an amazing meal that's safe to eat.”
Siesta Key Marina owner Maurice Dentici said rental bookings, fuel and bait sales have been 60% down from last month. He suggested national and international media reports and scenes of dead fish have had an effect on the decline in tourism.
“I’ve had customers from Denmark telling me their friends and family back home were calling to see if they were OK because they thought the red tide was deadly for people going in the water,” Dentici said. “It's the media misinforming people. What they are saying is worse than what it is. Conditions vary day-to-day, but I don’t think it’s that bad here.”
A no-swim advisory issued Aug. 23 for Siesta Beach was lifted the following day after Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County officials received testing results that satisfied the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and state recreational water standards.
The message that Siesta Key business owners do want locals and tourists to know is that they are open for business, and are imploring locals especially to support the business community.
“I hope the local people support the local businesses because we are the ones that keep the community going,” Breslin said. “Without these small businesses, you lack so much heart and soul of this community. This is what gives the town the charm.”
Ann Frescura, executive director of the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce, said in the past couple of weeks, there has been public confusion about what was open on the key.
To encourage local business support, Hope McCampbell-Wenk, owner of The Ringling Beach House has been offering visitors a free two-night stay if they spend at least $250 at Siesta Key businesses. She has booked 15 people through the initiative so far.
McCampbell-Wenk has lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in cancellations. Her hotel is normally fully booked in August and by this time, September and October are close to fully booked as well, but the hotel has seen few bookings since the red tide outbreak.
Last year, Siesta Key generated the highest percentage in tourism development tax revenue than any other location in Sarasota County.
“The hotel cancellations are going to create a huge loss in tourist tax revenue,” said McCampbell-Wenk. “Businesses are dying and people don’t realize the trickle-down effect this is having. The employees of these businesses are getting hurt the most. They are sacrificing so much to make ends meet.”