For years, the Wesley Chapel story has been one of growth and expansion, where new businesses and communities popped up on what seemed like a weekly basis, where roads were crowded, schools were filled to capacity and business was booming.
Appears to be time for a new chapter.
The next one written will be about the recovery from a deadly virus, COVID-19, that has shut almost everything across the country and the world down, stripped people of their jobs and the roads of its automobiles and people of their sense of safety and well-being.
“It came so fast,” says Pasco County commissioner Mike Moore. “These are unprecedented times and I don’t think anybody, no matter your age, unless you lived through the Great Depression, has gone through anything like this.”
On April 2, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, after weeks of harsh criticism for his inaction, shut the state down for 30 days with a stay-at-home order.
While essential businesses were allowed to stay open, everyone else was encouraged to stay home. Healthcare providers, grocery stores, gas stations, laundry service providers, office supply stores, the media and restaurants – take-out and delivery only – are all considered essential services.
DeSantis also included religious services at church.
When we went to press with our New Tampa issue on March 20th, the number of positive cases of coronavirus in Florida had just passed 500, and there had been 10 deaths.
Two weeks later as we wrapped up our current issue on April 3, there were 9,585 cases (including 74 in Pasco County) and 163 deaths (only two here at our press time).
While there have been glimmers of hope as the number of cases slows down and the flattening of the curve begins, local officials are still hard at work prepping for whatever the future holds.
Locally, Moore and other Pasco County officials have been scrambling to prepare the area with countless meetings and teleconferences, as business and schools and families have started full-fledged adjustments to life with coronavirus concerns.
Schools appear unlikely to open again this academic year. There has been no word on whether high school graduation ceremonies in Pasco County, scheduled for June 3-7, will actually take place.
Area schools have transitioned to online teaching/distance learning, and have been praised for the early results of those efforts.
“Saying that the last 2-3 weeks have been anything short of different would be an understatement,” said Pasco School District superintendent Kurt Browning. “It really has turned the school district on its heels…but a tip of the hat to the teachers and administrators for stepping up and digging in to find out how this works.”
Not only did schools hand out roughly 15,000 devices to accommodate students for distance learning, it also already has distributed more than 110,000 meals for students.
Originally a daily distribution, the district is now providing breakfast and lunch meals for the whole week on Tuesdays. The day of the first Tuesday distribution — on March 31— 80,680 meals were provided to families via drive-through lanes of 25 schools, including New River and Quail Hollow elementary schools.
Tuesday food service will continue through April.
Local businesses, however, are finding survival to be much more difficult, especially those who don’t have a business that can transition to offer its services online.
Social distancing is currently the best defense against coronavirus, according to medical experts, but it’s also the antithesis to small business success, especially for those in the service industry like hair and nail salons, small stores or studios and restaurants.
“It’s pretty stressful,” said James Serrano, who owns Pinot’s Palette in Wesley Chapel, a small art-and-wine studio that specializes in group painting events.
Those that can’t remain open can only hope that the stay-at-home order expires in 30 days.
However, no business owners we talked believed that 30 days was a realistic timeline, and most are readying to hunker down for a month or two longer.
“The best-case scenario from what I understand is May 8,” says Brass Tap owner Jeff Martin. “But, I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
Because Wesley Chapel is an area with a high concentration of small businesses — many of which have been experiencing boom times over the past few years due to the area’s tremendous growth — coronavirus fears are likely to strike a harsher blow.
But, no one really seems to know where this headed, except for uncharted territory.
“There are a lot of unknowns, and that is really the scary part,” says Hope Kennedy, the CEO of the 700-member North Tampa Bay Chamber of Commerce. “I’m not sure we’ve gotten to the (worst) of this. Once we do, we can get into recovery mode.”