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SEASIDE — The founders and leadership of the iconic residential and resort community of Seaside are taking their own lead in deciding when to reopen the commercial district, which was closed March 21 in response to the new coronavirus.
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Initial plans had called for the commercial district — all but deserted now except for a handful of food service establishments offering to-go service — to remain closed until April 30.
The closure of the commercial district came just days after Seaside’s leadership closed the private beach accesses.
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In a March 16 announcement, the Seaside Community Development Corporation wrote that the “town founders and leadership team believe the only decision that makes health and safety a top priority is to close Seaside until April 30, 2020.”
On April 18, the SCDC made another announcement, noting that the town founders and leadership had “set April 30 as a future date to review as the situation dictated. The date of reopening is not yet clear ... .”
Kerri Parker, the SCDC’s executive director of communications, said Monday that part of the reason for the careful approach to reopening the commercial district is the unique role the community plays among the resort and residential communities along Walton County Road 30A.
“Seaside has always been ’downtown 30A’,” Parker said.
The town’s myriad shops, restaurants and events routinely host large numbers of people who live, or are vacationing, in other area communities.
In the days between Seaside’s beach access closures and the deadline for the commercial district closure, large crowds of people, mostly young and often tightly packed, made their way along the sides of 30A and elsewhere in Seaside’s commercial district.
Because Seaside is such a central part of 30A, Parker said, the town “can’t necessarily take cues” from how other communities respond to the coronavirus pandemic.
Part of the reason for that, Parker added, is that Seaside, as a major local attraction, could find itself hosting people who have come to the community from so-called “hot spots,” places across the country where COVID-19 has proliferated.
According to Parker, while the town’s leadership is closely watching federal, state and local guidance and decisions related to reopening the economy, battered for weeks now by COVID-19, Seaside will reopen on its own terms.
“Once we reopen, things will look different,” she said.
Among the changes being mandated by a “mitigation team” comprising Seaside’s founders and upper management, are requirements for hand-washing stations, masks for employees and limits on occupancy of businesses, Parker said.
And while it won’t necessarily be mandated, Seaside officials hope that customers also will wear masks while patronizing Seaside’s commercial district, according to Parker.
Those changes are being communicated to business owners by a “task team” comprising some of the community’s business owners.
Whatever changes are put in place, individual businesses will be responsible for implementing in the way that best fits their enterprise, according to Parker.
In recent days, the mitigation team has been meeting via Zoom videoconferencing at least three times each week, Parker said, with numerous conversations among members between those meetings on an effectively daily basis.
A video conference open to all Seaside businesses is planned, according to Parker.
“Obviously, everybody wants to open sooner rather than later,” Parker said, again stressing that the community’s leadership would act on its own timeline.
That timeline likely will have an effect on the flow of tourists into and near Seaside, said Parker. While her office has little to do with the vacation rental operations in and around Seaside, some potential visitors have nonetheless been in touch with the SCDC with concerns about the commercial district, she said.
“Most of them are telling us that they would rather that the commercial district be opened” by the time they visit, Parker said.
In the meantime, Seaside’s businesses and their out-of-work employees have been getting significant community support. Seaside leadership has granted two months of rental abatements to the businesses themselves, and The Chapel at Seaside, with support from the Robert Davis Family Foundation and other donors, had as of Monday provided nearly $600,000 in donations to workers waiting on unemployment insurance and federal stimulus payments.
That fundraising effort is continuing. Donations can be made at the chapel’s website, http://thechapelatseaside.com/donate/.