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As red tide returns, local businesses worry about slowdown of customers

For a local tea shop, red tide has a golden lining: honey sales go up when customers come in with sore throats.

MADEIRA BEACH, Fla. — Some areas of Tampa Bay saw the worst red tide in decades over the summer months. And many were hoping that was the last of it for the year.

Well, the toxic algae is back in some areas, with local businesses once again dealing with the consequences. 

John's Pass, located near Madeira Beach and Treasure Island, is a strip of businesses known for attracting tourists. At The Spice and Tea Exchange, many of their customers are unaware of red tide until they come in coughing.

"Whenever it gets really bad, people will come in complaining about coughing," said Tatum Updegraff, a sales associate at The Spice and Tea Exchange. "They buy a lot of honey. Any time it's really bad, we do see a lot of slowdown."

When red tide conditions worsen, Updegraff said there is a noticeable slowdown in local customers, but for tourists, there can be an uptick, looking for remedies to soothe a sore throat. 

"Honey is one of them, it does help soothe any kind of throat irritation," said Updegraff. "We have a few different kinds: vanilla, cocoa, there's a bourbon honey."

The shop's aroma of different tea varieties also pleasantly masks any other smells.

"I like to think we're a nice little escape haven from the red tide outside," said Updegraff. 

John's Pass is currently listed at a 'medium level' for red tide concern. No fish kills or respiratory irritation has been reported. 

For businesses that don't offer red tide remedies and don't have an indoor area, they can take a harder hit when the air is thick with the smell of dead marine life. 

"[Business has] been really slow because of it," said Anneliese Copeland, an employee at Kohr Family Custard. "People want to stay safe and be at home. COVID and red tide mixed together--it's a whole thing."

Kohr Family Custard is a walk-up style dessert shop. Copeland said when red tide is bad, sales plummet. 

"No one wants to go to the beach, no one wants to come here," she said. "Smells really bad, smells like fish. Since we work by the beach, not many people are coming because of the red tide."

Businesses are used to a slow down this time of year, after school starts and before the holidays. But what they're hoping doesn't happen: two bad spouts of red tide in the same year.