Back in the spring, the Tampa Bay Times reached out to a number of business owners, workers and nonprofit operators to see what toll the coronavirus shutdown was taking on their livelihoods.
Some had been hit hard. But almost to a person, they were hopeful about coming through it intact. A few were even using it as an opportunity to try something new.
We check back in with them as the year draws to a close with COVID-19 cases and deaths spiking once again.
One business owner was forced to shut down. A restaurant manager moved to another employer and is dreaming of starting his own business when the pandemic passes. Others are hanging on, still hopeful their fortunes will rise again.
Here’s what they told us.
Jill Rice, 64, owner of Zaiya ArtiZen Market, Gulfport
Jill Rice had just opened her boutique shop in Gulfport, a lifelong dream for her retirement, in December 2019. A few months later, the pandemic threatened to shutter it for good.
In mid-March, she felt the beginnings of an intense illness — which she suspects was COVID-19. It caused her to shut down her store even before the government required it, she said. Rice recovered, but she wasn’t sure her new shop would survive.
Earlier this month, she said the support she’s received at Zaiya ArtiZen Market has been nothing short of “miraculous.”
“Sometimes I hesitate to say too much about it because I know so many people … who have suffered,” she said. “But I can’t imagine a better outcome than what I’ve had this year.”
Rice attributes much of that success to the residents of Gulfport consciously choosing to support businesses in their community. Her shop sells jewelry and clothing, as well as the works of more than 30 local artists, who receive the bulk of the proceeds when their pieces sell, she said.
“I eat out every day, I shop local and everybody else is shopping local, too,” she said. “We’re supporting one another.”
Even with the pandemic, Rice said she’s tripled the projections she set for her first year. The success has allowed her to hire her first employee.
“‘To whom much is given, much is required,’ is my life’s philosophy,” Rice said. “Everyone who shops in here, I thank them for supporting local artists, and I say: ‘It makes a difference.’”
David Eliasson, 48, Snack Attack Vending owner, Tampa
The pandemic hasn’t stopped people from snacking, but it has changed where they indulge: home.
“I’m shocked and amazed that it continues,” David Eliasson said.
Eliasson owns Snack Attack Vending, a Tampa-based vending machine snack supplier. When the pandemic hit, his business was more than halved. Between 60 and 70 percent of his clients are in office buildings, leaving him to focus on the remaining 40 percent — mostly warehouses.
In May, he was operating three delivery routes alone. Since then, he has expanded slightly, hiring a part-time driver once a week to help with deliveries.
But business is far from back. How quickly it rebounds depends on when other companies resume normal operations. Many have some level of in-person staffing, but that doesn’t always translate into regained business for Eliasson.
One retirement home, for example, paused its vending service for about three months at the outset of the pandemic and had its break rooms closed. No one was buying his snacks. It opened the break room again later, but because of COVID-19 concerns, movement within the building is restricted. That means only employees are allowed in the area where his snacks are displayed, but none of the residents.
Hospices have followed the same pattern, Eliasson said.
“Now I’m in the building,” he said. “Not much is happening in the building, but I’m in.”
Kevin Tydlaska-Dziedzic, 34, and Brandon Tydlaska-Dziedzic, 33, BKN Creative co-founders, Ybor
Ybor’s BKN Creative was in the red for seven months.
The pandemic had sheared 95 percent of the budding marketing firm’s business. Its two founders stopped paying themselves to keep the rest of their seven-person team on the payroll. But without help, they feared having to close their 2-year-old business by late spring.
So they asked for help.
CEO Kevin Tydlaska-Dziedzic and his husband, the firm’s chief creative officer, applied for federal and local pandemic assistance. They secured funds to pay their rent for three months and get help with utilities, as well as pay three of their employees, with a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan.
In October, they landed GTE Financial as a client, making their firm profitable for the first time since March.
“I was proud,” Kevin Tydlaska-Dziedzic said. “I was proud of our team members and us not losing hope and still persevering.”
Since then, the firm has taken on three interns from the University of South Florida, and Kevin Tydlaska-Dziedzic was asked to join the board of the Heart Gallery of Tampa, which connects foster children with adoptive families.
In December, they gave each of their employees a bonus as a thank you for staying with them. While the firm is on stronger footing than it was at the outset of the year, its founders said they’re working to build up reserves and a plan going forward.
“It helped us learn the process for next time if, God forbid, something like this happens again,” Brandon Tydlaska-Dziedzic said.
Eric Carrasquillo, 36, general manager at La La’s Sangria Bar, Tampa
Although the pandemic has continued to stunt the restaurant and bar industry, it’s also pushed Eric Carrasquillo to grow.
When the coronavirus hit Florida, he was managing a new Tampa burger joint, Butter’s Burgers, that opened on a Friday the 13th in March and was forced to shut down shortly thereafter. He received unemployment benefits and in return was doing his best to patronize as many local bars and restaurants as he could to support his friends and neighbors.
But he said he had “irreconcilable differences” with the owners of that restaurant over how to keep the business going during the pandemic, so he decided this summer to make a change.
Carrasquillo landed at La La’s Sangria Bar in Channelside, which just celebrated its first anniversary. There, he had the idea to start a monthly burlesque show — during which the performers also eat fire — to add to the establishment’s weekly Drag Brunch. It’s an idea that he hopes someday to incorporate into his own restaurant.
“For the last 18 years I’ve had the same vision. I want to open an Asian-Latin fusion restaurant, tapas style,” he said. The pandemic has also given him the inspiration for its name, which would fit in with his concept for an open layout: “I want to call it ‘Social Distance.’”
The new show has been a success, Carrasquillo said, even with drastically limited capacity because of the pandemic. He started as a bartender at La La’s, but recently was named the general manager, he said. By bringing in more business, he was able to hire more staff, including friends he knew were financially struggling.
The owners at La La’s “believe in my vision for my own concept, and are going to partner with me,” he said, noting that the coronavirus caused him to try the new job. “I wouldn’t have any of these opportunities if not for the pandemic.”
But he cautioned that his story shouldn’t give the impression that the restaurant industry is doing well.
“It’s not like this vaccine is coming out, and everything goes back to normal,” he said. “I think people are being reconditioned to how they spend their money … I’m worried about what 2021, 2022 will look like. Especially if I want to open my own business.”
Anthony Gregorio, 60, My Tampa DJ, Valrico
In May, when the bars and restaurants where he leads karaoke were just beginning to reopen, Anthony Gregorio was “living the struggle.”
Seven months later, it’s much of the same.
“There’s no Christmas this year,” he said.
Gregorio estimates he has lost about $20,000 between cancelled gigs and pay cuts. The owners of the struggling businesses where he typically works cannot all pay him the same rates. His calendar for December, which used to bring big corporate parties and steady checks, is barren by comparison.
“I’m working every week, but I only have had three times where I worked the whole week,” Gregorio said. Even the Tampa Bay Lightning’s and Rays’ deep playoff runs, an exciting distraction in a terrible year, meant missed nights for a DJ, because bars wanted to show the games.
“My costs have gone up as well,” Gregorio said. He churns through throwaway microphone covers, about $100 for 1,200, and loads up on Clorox wipes. Still, he knows people are apprehensive. A drunken night belting out pop hits, surrounded by people grabbing the same microphone, can be scary in a pandemic.
Gregorio tries to wear a mask, and he said he is lucky to have not gotten the coronavirus. He has stopped bouncing around the crowd as often to encourage people to sing. Tips are basically non-existent. Where he used to have 20 or 25 regulars in a nightly rotation, he’s now lucky if there are a dozen.
Some, but not all, of his jobs are outside. At one Irish pub in Tampa, he used to see nurses and doctors off shifts at Tampa General Hospital. Not in 2020.
He is behind on rent, electric and water and is working toward payment plans for the utilities. As of early December, he said, he owed about $1,500 for all the bills. The government gave him a loan, Gregorio said, but it was not enough to cover all his expenses.
Sometimes, he said, friends pick him up packages of food at Metropolitan Ministries.
He turned 60 in October. He said he applied for a job with Uber, but it went nowhere. This month, Gregorio said his father was in a coma in Belize, where he’s from. Doctors thought it might have been a stroke and were unsure whether his dad would live.
With quarantine recommendations, Gregorio said he did not know if he would make it home.
Yvette Lewis, 44, president of the Hillsborough County branch of the NAACP
As president of the Hillsborough branch of the NAACP, Yvette Lewis has helped the local organization shift to virtual strategies for reaching the community. In-person meetings that once drew 80 to 100 people are now conducted over Zoom. In July, the branch started a Twitter account. Around September, it added one for Instagram, and more recently, a YouTube channel.
“We had to really step up 100 percent when it comes to social media and messaging and getting our information out there,” Lewis said.
This summer, protests against racial inequality swept the nation, and a pandemic that disproportionately hit Black communities spiked in Florida. Trying to advocate for the community amid these challenges could be frustrating, Lewis said.
She avoided large crowds and sometimes watched the protests from her car.
“You want to be out there with them but then you have to keep yourself safe as well,” she said.
With meetings held virtually, about 40 to 50 people attend. Lewis believes attendance is down because some seniors don’t have access to Zoom. It’s also harder to communicate with people, Lewis said.
Still, she remains optimistic.
“We have survived many things, so COVID is not going to get in our way,” she said.
Darry Jackson, 72, Bill Jackson’s Shop for Adventure, Pinellas Park
As Florida’s coronavirus count ticked up this spring and people began to stay home, Darry Jackson worried for his family business.
But by mid-November, Bill Jackson’s Shop for Adventure — in the family since 1946 — had posted its best year ever.
“I hate to say it with some people out of work,” Jackson said. “We’re very fortunate.”
The store sold double the number of paddle boards as last year, he estimated. Kayaks stayed popular. So did fishing gear and guns. For a time in the summer, with retail capacity reductions, employees kept customers waiting outside.
Jackson estimated he has about 53 staffers, roughly the same as last holiday season.
“People, they want to be smart and they want to social distance, but they want to have fun,” Jackson said. “The stuff we do in the outdoors is everything right that people should be doing to be safe.”
As winter sets in, sales of ski gear have dropped. People are not flying out west to visit the mountains.
He got the coronavirus in November, suffering mild symptoms after a trip to Jamaica, he said. Jackson had felt safe, he said, because he and his girlfriend needed to show proof of a negative test to get on the flight.
The hardest part for his employees has been enforcing mask requirements.
“People come in not wearing a mask, and it’s hard because we’re trying to do the right thing,” he said. “We’ve had some people who have cussed at us. We had to call the police once.”
He hopes a result of the pandemic is that more people are aware of the experiences they can have in nature.
“Once you go down a place like Rainbow (River) or Chassahowitzka or Homosassa, you will go back again,” Jackson said. “There’s going to be a lot of people doing stuff outdoors in the future because they got introduced to it now.”
Kiran Bahl, 41, owner of Gro Styles An Indian Boutique, Temple Terrace
Kiran Bahl had been building up customers locally and overseas for her traditional clothing store in Temple Terrace, Gro Styles An Indian Boutique, when she noticed sales at the start of the year coming in slowly.
But it was okay, she thought. That’s how most years start.
Until it wasn’t okay.
With gatherings such as weddings postponed or cancelled due to the coronavirus, and shipments from India delayed, Bahl lost out on so many sales that she closed the 16-year-old Tampa store in September.
“We literally had zero sales the last couple of months,” Bahl said.
She started the business in Orlando 18 years ago, then expanded to Ft. Lauderdale and Tampa. By the time the pandemic started, she was down to just the Tampa store. As spring sales started taking a dive, Bahl was hoping to count on online sales, along with advertising discounts on Facebook and through word of mouth.
”But nothing,” she said.
From March until the store’s closing, Bahl was able to get only one box of bangles from India, she said.
She tried applying for federal small business loans, but that didn’t pan out. She said she was told that because she had no employees, she did not qualify.
For now, she’s selling off the rest of her inventory online with a 50 percent sale and has no plans of reopening.
”I would just tell anyone and everyone to just support your local businesses,” Bahl said.
Daniel de la Rosa, 54, owner of De La Rosa Travel, Tampa
With planes once again taking off, operating hours at the De La Rosa Travel agency have expanded since it reopened in May following pandemic lockdowns.
Customers looking for flights to Mexico and the Dominican Republic, even to Cuba, can now contact Daniel de la Rosa’s staff weekdays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
But the coronavirus continues to cast a shadow over the business, with sales 45 percent lower than they were the same time last year. And only three of the five staffers are working in the office at a time, due to safety concerns, de la Rosa said.
In May, remittances, or money transfers, to Cuba, which the agency also handles, were down by 70 percent, according to de la Rosa. But now all such business is closed after Western Union stopped sending money to Cuba from the United States in late November following the latest American sanctions on the island as reported by Reuters.
For now, de la Rosa hopes tourism travel will pick up next year.
Glenda Maiden, 43, director of programming and production, Tampa Bay Arts & Education Network
It’s been a busy year for Glenda Maiden, director of programming and production at the Tampa Bay Arts & Education Network.
At the beginning of the pandemic, the nonprofit network postponed several projects and played reruns. Now, using its virtual platforms, it has helped with projects such as an NAACP political forum, a Tampa Bay Network to End Hunger virtual conference and Florida Aquarium Evening Tide Talks.
“We’re doing kind of like Zoom, but it’s a little bit more in depth,” Maiden said.
Throughout the year, Maiden has balanced these duties with caring for her husband, Scott Maiden, who was undergoing treatment for lymphoma, and her two kids, 12 and 9.
Scott Maiden — who serves as CEO of the network — is in remission, and the couple has decided to keep the children in virtual school, considering his health and and that of two family members with asthma.
The network is working with the NAACP on a history of Tampa’s African American history. It received a Telly Award this year for another video it did with the Hillsborough NAACP.
It has been able to keep all six employees, thanks to a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan, and none of its 12 internships was canceled. But with the possibility of state grant funding cuts next year, Maiden worries about the network’s future finances.
“It’s important to support nonprofits,” she said. “We were fortunate to get that PPP loan, and that really saved us from having to cut anyone.”
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