By Rachel Brown Hackney
Red tide not only was the scourge of visitors and residents in late July and early August, but it also prompted plenty of calls to the Sarasota County Contact Center.
Media Relations Officer Drew Winchester said in an Aug. 6 email that he did not have exact numbers, but the week of July 31, the Call Center was averaging about 50 to 60 calls a day “related to Red Tide/fish kill. They saw that number drop after the Thursday [Aug. 2] cleanup efforts took place,” he added. On Aug. 3, only about 24 calls on the topic came into the Contact Center, Winchester noted.
A purple banner at the top of the county’s website has alerted the public to the following: “Sarasota County is actively monitoring the beaches and cleaning in accordance with beach policy. To report a fish kill, call 800-636-0511. Find current beach conditions at Mote Marine Daily Beach Conditions (https://visitbeaches.org). Find updates on the county’s beach cleaning efforts at Red Tide Status.” A visitor to the homepage at www.scgov.net can just click on the links.
The Red Tide Status webpage has a wealth of statistics. For example, the Aug. 3 update noted that 9 tons of fish were removed from Siesta Key beaches, including Turtle Beach. However, it added that on Turtle Beach alone, 1,120 pounds of fish were removed. On Lido Beach, 7 tons were hauled out that day.
The weekend update for Aug. 4-5 noted that 2.13 tons of fish were removed from Siesta Public Beach, and 1.27 tons were taken off Turtle Beach. Another 9.06 tons were removed from Lido Beach.
As of Aug. 6, the update pointed out, “Due to improving conditions and no fish kill/aerosols reported, fish removal did not occur on Siesta Beach, Turtle Beach and South County beaches.”
That webpage also directs visitors to read the county beach-cleaning policy. Among the primary points of that policy are that beach cleaning generally is limited to the following: areas owned by the county and open to the general public; areas below the approximate Mean High Water Line “and in close proximity to a County-owned public beach or beach access”; and areas that are part of a federal or state beach renourishment project and seaward of the Erosion Control Line.
Other significant defining factors, the policy notes, are that two tidal cycles have not removed the debris and dead fish naturally, and the accumulation has reached the level — on a continuous 2-mile stretch of the beach — at which it would be sufficient to fill one truck capable of holding 5 cubic yards. Additionally, that swath of beach must be “accessible to motorized equipment or vehicles …”
Siesta business owners dealing with repercussions of red tide
As Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce members aired frustrations in mid-August about widespread negative publicity regarding red tide, Director Joye Argo had a suggestion.
Perhaps Chamber Executive Director Ann Frescura could figure out a way to put a link on the Chamber’s homepage to the “beach cam” provided by https://www.earthcam.com/usa/florida/sarasota/?cam=siestabeach.
Argo, managing member of Studio F Digital Marketing LLC, was responding to frustrations voiced by a past Chamber chair, Alana Tomasso, who manages Midnight Cove on the Key.
Frescura agreed that the idea was a good one. After the Aug. 15 meeting, she said would work on it. In a follow-up email late that afternoon, Frescura wrote, “I have asked our tech guy to post the link to our website.”
During the Aug. 15 quarterly meeting for members — which the Chamber board hosted at the Daiquiri Deck on Stickney Point Road — Tomasso talked of renters upset about the red tide telling her and her staff “we’re awful people,” because the refund policy does not allow staff to give them their money back after they have stayed on the property.
The Guest Rental Agreement and Rental Policies for Midnight Cove — which were found online — says, “All cancellations require written notice. For reservations of less than 3 weeks there is a $95 fee for cancellations made outside of 60 days from check-in. No refunds for cancellations/alterations made less than 60 days from arrival.”
“We’re getting beat up every day,” Tomasso said during the Chamber meeting. Moreover, she added, “People coming in December want to cancel.”
She asked Frescura what type of feedback the Chamber staff has had from other businesses.
“We at the Chamber don’t step into the middle of anyone’s policy,” Frescura replied. Chamber staff tells people complaining about specific properties that they will have to deal with management at those properties, Frescura pointed out.
The staff also offers examples of activities people can pursue in the area, she noted, other than going to the beach.
‘A unified effort’
Early during the Aug. 15 meeting, Frescura told the group of about 18 attendees, “I know that red tide has been affecting everyone.” The Chamber, she continued, has “been fielding a lot of phone calls, questions, concerns …”
On Monday, she said, she participated in a conference call with Virginia Haley, president of Sarasota County’s tourism office, Visit Sarasota County. As part of “a unified front,” Frescura explained, the Siesta Chamber has posted links on its website homepage, directing visitors to Mote Marine Laboratory’s Beach Conditions Report, which covers a swath of the Southwest Florida shoreline — from the beach on Caladesi Island to South Marco Beach.
Visit Sarasota County also has started regular surveys to determine the effects of red tide on businesses, Frescura noted.
On its website, Visit Sarasota County says it has begun “weekly monitoring of our tourism industry to determine the impacts of the red tide on your business. These surveys will be sent to you every Wednesday during the duration of this occurrence.” The results of the first survey were for the week of
Aug. 1 to Aug. 7, the website pointed out. Those results showed the following:
- 90% of respondents were less than 3 miles from the beach or Sarasota Bay.
- “90% lost business”
- “The average loss [that] week compared to same week last year was 5%”
The Siesta Chamber website also has a link to a fact sheet and other information about red tide provided on the website of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC).
“That’s our effort,” Frescura said: “to just put that [information] there in addition to fielding the phone calls …” (Visit Sarasota County offers links on its website, too, to a variety of resources related to red tide, including Mote’s Beach Conditions Report.)
A trying time
Tomasso brought up her concerns at the conclusion of the regular business on the Aug. 15 agenda.
Argo first suggested that property managers encourage their clients to look at the beach web cam, which features the day’s date and a digital clock imposed on the image of Siesta Beach.
When people read the recent Mote beach conditions reports, Argo continued, they see words such as “Heavy” and “Intense” describing fish kill levels and respiratory conditions on Siesta Public Beach. “People are afraid,” she added.
Yet, she goes out to the beach herself most mornings to check on the actual conditions, she pointed out, indicating she has found far better circumstances than those people might expect after reading the Mote data.
On the beach web cam, Argo added, “You can see people are sitting at the water. They’re putting up umbrellas.”
Tomasso responded that her staff has been posting photos on the Midnight Cove homepage each day, showing actual conditions in an effort to dispute news media accounts that have left people with the impression that the situation on Siesta Key is dire.
Staff is telling people, “‘This is our beach … our current situation,’” Tomasso said.
In her correspondence with the News Leader, Frescura wrote that the Chamber staff would be sending out an email blast on Aug. 16 to all members, with references to the web cam, visitbeaches.org and the FWC information. “We will also encourage members to share/post positive images on their websites and social media,” she added.
Yet another key piece of information she passed along to members in that email is that when Gov. Scott declared the State of Emergency, he activated the Florida Small Business Emergency Bridge Loan Program. Frescura shared with the News Leader information about that program from Sarasota County’s director of governmental relations, Robert Lewis. It is “available to small business owners located in designated disaster areas that experienced physical and/or economic damage as a result of [red tide and the Lake Okeechobee discharge/algae blooms issue]. Small business owners can qualify for up to $50,000 per eligible business,” Lewis wrote. This is the link to details about that program: http://www.floridadisasterloan.org/.