Tampa Bay area governments enact face mask rules in effort to slow spread of COVID-19

Posted at 11:23 AM, Jun 23, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-24 00:20:51-04

TAMPA, Fla. — Governments on both sides of Tampa Bay are now requiring face masks in many public places in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Mayor Rick Kriseman signed an executive order Monday evening requiring those 18 and older to wear a face covering inside places made available to the public.

“This is all about all of us doing what we have to do to stop the spread to make sure we don’t overwhelm our hospitals and it’s what we have to do,” Kriseman said. “We don’t want to close. It should be everybody’s goal, the worst thing that could happen, is if we have to shut down our businesses again it’s going to devastate our economy. The only way we prevent that from happening is to wear these things and keep socially distant.”

The order includes exceptions, for instance when eating or drinking, if there are less than 10 people maintaining social distance, while exercising or when it interferes with participation in a religious ritual. It doesn’t apply to residences or when it harms someone’s health or safety. Violating order is a municipal ordinance violation. The mayor said it carries up to a $500 fine.

“We want people to take this seriously so I don’t want people to have the idea that 'oh I can get away with this a couple times before I’m getting a citation,'” Kriseman said. “There’s gonna be a period where we want to make sure the public knows that we’ve put this in place but having said that don’t push it you know.”

Last week, Kriseman enacted an order requiring many employees inside businesses to wear masks. The city said code enforcement has proactively inspected about 50 businesses, giving warnings to several of them.

“They looked at it as 'well we could cite you but we’re gonna try and educate you but understand if we come back here and you’re still not doing it then clearly it’s no longer that you don’t understand you need to be educated it’s that you’re ignoring it,'” Kriseman said.

The Galley in downtown St. Petersburg closed June 12 after it said a few staff members tested positive for COVID-19. When it plans to re-open Wednesday, it’s also preparing for the new rules.

“I think we just kind of have to hunker down together around here. I think that everybody needs to participate. I felt a little bit of misgivings about making only the staff have to wear the mask before. We knew when we were open through all of May and even during the take out time through all of March and April we didn’t have any employees that got sick,” said co-owner and operator Peter Boland. “So we know it was the public exposure from all these folks that were anxious to get in here and dine and relax with us that, that's what got our people exposed.”

Boland said his concern is over enforcement.

“It does make a little more sense, I just know it’s going to be difficult to enforce and we also know in the hospitality business we’re all about people being relaxed and comfortable and having a good time and you can’t eat or drink with a mask on. It’s just going to be one of those tricky things,” he said.

In Tampa, the city said a few complaints started coming in Monday over its order requiring masks indoors.

“We’re at the part we’re educating and encouraging everyone to wear a mask,” said Keith O’Connor, the neighborhood enhancement manager for Tampa, which code enforcement falls under.

O’Connor said violating the order could cost a civil citation, including up to a $500 fine. He said code enforcement officers will respond to complaints related to mask wearing, and on weekends, be in popular bar and restaurant areas.

“It’ll switch when once we know everyone’s aware of the order and if they’re just not gonna comply with it no matter how many times they’re told and the complaints come in that this location or this particular area just will not comply then enforcement could be an option down the road,” he said.

Monday, the Hillsborough County Emergency Policy Group voted 5-3 to enact an order requiring face coverings inside businesses open to the public where employees and customers can’t maintain social distancing. The vote came after health experts shared their concerns about the surge in the community-based transmission of coronavirus cases.

The order is set to take effect Wednesday at 5 p.m., and like other orders, there are also exceptions.

“It’s a good idea horrifically executed,” said attorney Patrick Leduc.

Leduc raised the issue with the group’s authority to enact the order.

“The emergency policy group to do what they did because it violates separation of powers you have people on that board that belong to different branches of government,” he said.

Leduc said he is considering filing a lawsuit but isn’t against the policy itself though.

“People are gonna mix up the legality of something with the wisdom of doing something. The wisdom of this is without question but the problem is you’ve got to do things the right way. If you don’t do things the right way it becomes a problem because this is how we lose our liberties,” he said.

Pinellas County Commissioners are expected to consider a face covering order Tuesday.

“If we’re really going to stop the spread this is how we do it where all the communities are working together and the policies are the same across the board,” said Kriseman.

The Florida Surgeon General issued a public health advisory calling on all Floridians to wear masks when they can’t socially distance.

“Estimates are that COVID-19 has probably infected 5% of Florida’s population and is now in an exponential phase, doubling every seven days. At this rate of increase, it will infect over 75% of the state’s population by the middle of July, overwhelming our health care system,” said. Dr. Thomas Unnasch in a statement.

He is a distinguished professor and co-director of the Center for Global Health Infectious Disease Research at USF.

“We must work together as individuals and as a community to stop this disaster from happening. And the time to act is NOW. We do not have time to wait any longer. Studies have shown that if 60% of the people wear multilayer masks like those on sale everywhere now, we can stop the epidemic in its tracks. Please, for your health, the health of your loved ones and the health of everyone in our community, wear a mask! If we do so now, we can break this thing before it breaks us,” Unnasch stated.

At the Galley, Boland said re-opening will start with workers who tested negative Wednesday and more will be brought in over the weekend.

“We asked everybody to go get tested. It was a little more difficult than we thought. We thought we’d be able to get all 36 employees tested and get some results back rather quickly and that just wasn’t the case. Some test sites are really overwhelmed they were running out of swabs or they had to have actual symptoms to get a test so some of those things were a little bit difficult but we’ve been able to get enough data together we feel comfortable about going forward,” he said.

But as for masks, Boland said staff is making personalized masks and they’re working on branded ones.

“We’re just gonna do the best we can to work with the city to get through this tough time and we’re just gonna try to have as much fun with it as we can,” he said.

You can learn more about CDC’s recommendations for face coverings here.