TAMPA, Fl.— The Hillsborough County Emergency Policy Group met Thursday afternoon virtually to recommend face coverings, discuss economic recovery, public health models and rescind a recently imposed curfew.
For residents and visitors in Hillsborough County, wearing a cloth face covering is only strongly urged and not required when engaging in essential activities. Hillsborough County's Emergency Policy Group first discussed the motion to make face coverings a requirement earlier this week.
On Thursday afternoon, the motion to mandate face coverings did not make it to a vote. A motion to recommend face coverings failed 6-2, and instead communications staff were directed to send out information they were strongly recommended for all residents and visitors.
USF health experts said the virus is reported to cause asymptomatic disease in a quarter of people exposed, which has led to the recommendation to prevent the spread. A face mask would not replace physical distancing measures.
Wearing a face covering is not required but strongly urged for those in Hillsborough County. A draft of the original order recommended every person working, living, visiting or doing business in Hillsborough County wear a mask, consistent with the current CDC guidelines, when engaging in essential activities or conducting essential business. That means you are recommended to wear one if you are "working in or visiting grocery stores, restaurants, pharmacies, public transit vehicles, vehicles for hire, and other locations where in-person interaction occurs, but social distancing measures are not possible."
Plant City Mayor Rick Lott argued he didn't believe board should be ordering residents.
“I believe we’ve gotta restore trust and faith with our citizens right now," he said.
Mayor Jane Castor, who made the initial proposal, released this statement following the meeting:
"I am disappointed that the Emergency Policy Group ignored the recommendation made by USF’s public health experts that we implement a face covering order for those visiting high-traffic essential businesses like grocery stores and pharmacies. This decision leaves essential workers and customers at a greater risk of exposure to COVID-19. Face coverings not only reduce the transmission of the virus, but they are a vital first step that will allow us to return to a more normal life and reopen our economy. Today’s vote could lengthen the time that we will need to keep the Safer at Home order in place, hurting our small businesses and keeping all of us away from our family and friends.
I urge Tampa residents to listen to what medical experts say and protect yourself and others by wearing a face covering when you go to the grocery store, pharmacy, to a restaurant for carryout or when riding in a bus or rideshare. Continue social distancing and wash your hands. By working together we will be able to get back to a more normal life sooner."
Thursday, the board unanimously voted to rescind the curfew that was enacted Monday. On Monday, EPG members voted 5-3 to enact a curfew. It was in place from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. every day. BOCC Chairman Les Miller proposed the curfew after seeing the number of reported violations of the safer-at-home order.
HCSO has reported hundreds of calls received for people potentially violating the order, including parties, large group gatherings and even a restaurant still seating people outside.
EPG members previously considered a curfew when voting to enact the region’s safer-at home-order, ultimately deciding against it at that time.
"The only way we’re going to stop this right now is to have the curfew, and the curfew has to go in place," Miller said on Monday. "We tried the safer at home [and] in many instances [it's] not working. Yes, there are those abiding what the safer at home says we appreciate that we really really do for those that are doing the right thing we appreciate it. But there are a lot of people out there that are not. And those ones that are not could put those that are in jeopardy."
The curfew allowed exceptions for essential services, including going to the grocery store, pharmacy or to and from an essential activity. But Miller said you should not be going for a jog or walking your dog after 9 p.m., leading to some confusion.
State Attorney Andrew Warren said it needed clarification.
"The curfew, as written, is not entirely clear, and we anticipate that the EPG will provide clarity as soon as possible. What is clear is that the EPG is confronting head-on the need for aggressive and responsible social distancing and that the goal remains to promote compliance rather than prosecuting non-compliance," he said in a statement.
Tampa attorney Patrick Ledluc said he was preparing a lawsuit in response to the curfew. The lawsuit would seek a temporary restraining order and injunction.
“People should not just sit idly by and say, ‘Oh this is OK. It’s not OK,” Leduc said on Monday. “Our elected officials are not showing good judgment. This ordinance does not pass constitutional muster, and it must die the death it deserves.”
Since Monday, Miller said he had received more than 600 comments and other members also received calls and emails.
"Please don’t do what some people did and that was send some of the meanest, nastiest, dirtiest emails I’ve ever received," he said following the unanimous vote to rescind it.
"You hear this talk about we’re gonna open the country back up and open the state back up that’s coming from non medical experts. Medical experts are saying Florida it’s coming to you and it’s gonna get hit and that’s what I’m trying to get them to understand okay you want to do away with the curfew now and you don’t want to wear the mask we may have to come back next week or the week after that and put it back in place," Miller said.
Some board members argued they had acted in haste, and that the order sent the wrong message to people following the safer at home order and caused confusion.
Sheriff Chad Chronister voted for the curfew Monday; however, his campaign sent an email poll asking whether people supported the curfew. A campaign spokesperson said they had more than 27,000 responses and more than 7,000 comments by late Thursday morning.
"It certainly weighed in it wasn’t going to be a popularity vote. As a sheriff being an elected official I wanted to know what our community felt. Do we need more restrictions? After that over 64 percent did say that we needed a curfew and we do have a curfew it’s a safer at home order which is a 24 hour curfew. Again I have to look at it from a law enforcement position. A night time curfew isn’t a useful tool to law enforcement because it’s just another redundant order," Chronister said.
The safer at home order is still in place.
USF health experts told members they’re working with modelers to develop a regional model for Tampa Bay to help health care systems prepare for a potential surge in COVID-19 patients and for officials to access a timetable for considering relaxing safer-at-home orders. Experts said while safer-at-home policies appear to be having a positive impact, it does not mean they are out of the woods or can let their guard down. Instead, they say now is the time to plan for a worst-case scenario and the next phases of the pandemic.
A document submitted to members states, “Preliminary review of this and other models indicates that the date of such relaxation is many weeks away.” Concerns about relaxing policies too soon are based on the potential for a second wave of COVID-19.
Another document submitted to EPG members said developing an exit strategy is difficult since it’s not known how many people are actually infected due to limited testing. Ultimately, a vaccine is needed to prevent future outbreaks.
EPG members received studies and research on easing social distancing, managing and containing the virus.
USF researchers launched a community survey earlier this week, taking into account locations and symptoms, to help form a heat map of potential hot spots.
The county is planning to send out a community survey on attitudes on COVID-19 testing.
A copy of the survey submitted to EPG members shows questions include if people would get tested if they showed symptoms, what factors would prevent them from covering their face in public, how many feet people stay away from each other while practicing social distancing, worries about the price of testing and treatment, transportation for testing and how serious people are taking measures like washing hands and cleaning frequently touched items.
The CEO of Tampa Bay EDC also presented to EPG members.
An economic recovery task force will focus on developing recommendations to accelerate economic recovery. They’ve broken it down to re-employment and retraining of dislocated workers, retaining and support local businesses and recovery strategies and programs for both the short and long terms.
"Discuss about how can we accelerate the economy or the recovery of the economy so that data and recommendations that have been derived by stakeholders within the community business leaders, academic leaders, industry sector leaders, non profit associations that they made these recommendations with data they can trust so that’s the whole purpose of the recovery task force is to provide that information to our policy makers so they can make informed decisions about how we can get our economy restarted and recovered," said EDC's CEO, Craig Richard.
The EDC will help coordinate meetings and communicate recommendations. The process will involve the EDC, city and county economic development staff, Career Source Tampa Bay, industry sector leaders, academic leaders, non-profit leaders and small business assistance leaders.
EPG members voted to extend the emergency declaration. They will meet again on Monday.