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Tampa, Hillsborough County brace for coming “Category 5” coronavirus storm

City and county employees are now working from home, libraries have closed along with day camps, schools and local businesses as government officials work to ward off the threat of a coronavirus outbreak.
The Double Decker Bar in Tampa's Ybor City neighborhood temporarily closed on March 16, 2020 following directives from Hillsborough County and the City of Tampa.
The Double Decker Bar in Tampa's Ybor City neighborhood temporarily closed on March 16, 2020 following directives from Hillsborough County and the City of Tampa. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]
Published Mar. 17, 2020

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TAMPA — A Category 5 hurricane has set its sights on Tampa Bay, Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill warned Tuesday. But it can’t be tracked on weather maps and won’t announce itself through darkened skies.

The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic is a “tiny little bug that no one can see,” but the destruction could be deadlier than a hurricane, Merrill said.

“Imagine if we had the opportunity together, as a community, to take steps to actually take a Cat-5 hurricane that’s heading for us and reduce it to a Cat-1 ... ," he said. “That’s what we’re doing here.”

The threat isn’t wind gusts or storm surge, but people. And this week, local governments from courts to city hall announced further plans to limit large gatherings and reduce risk — from closing libraries to allowing employees to work from home.

While Tampa and Hillsborough County parks remain open, programming and all other city or county activities at those parks have been postponed for the foreseeable future, officials said.

Hillsborough County closed all public libraries until April 13. Library book drops are also closed and unavailable to take returned or donated items. (Library patrons’ accounts won’t be locked because of overdue items, officials said, and the library does not charge overdue fines.)

Most employees in both city and county government have been asked to work from home and limit their interactions with citizens as much as possible.

“This is an unprecedented time in our city and it requires quick actions and tough decisions that prioritize the safety of our resident workforce and entire community,” Tampa Mayor Jane Castor said at a news conference Tuesday.

"There is no doubt that this virus is spreading very quickly throughout our community. Testing is very limited and as a result we do not have an accurate count of how many people in our community are infected with this virus,” she said. “This is the only way we can flatten the curve and hopefully save lives.”

Working with state and local government, the City of Tampa has pooled together its city attorneys to operate a phone bank for small business owners with questions about how they can apply for low or no interest loans made available in the wake of the coronavirus’ spread. A phone number was not yet available Tuesday.

That information has been compiled on the City of Tampa’s website, along with multiple social services available to those losing income through shutdowns. It will be available at https://www.tampagov.net/emergency-management/covid-19.

The city is working with Hillsborough County and local nonprofit agencies to create a Social Service Task Force that will oversee aid efforts throughout the county, Castor said. Their first order of business is coordinating a massive effort to deliver meals to the homes of elderly and home-bound citizens who were previously served at now-shuttered senior centers.

In Hillsborough courts, most non-emergency matters will be put off for the next month or conducted via phone or videoconferencing, according to a new set of rules the chief judge issued Tuesday to reduce the number of people visiting court facilities.

While local courthouses remain open, only “mission critical” and “essential court functions” will have in-person court hearings. That includes juvenile detention and shelter hearings and emergency matters like Baker Act proceedings.

Hillsborough Chief Judge Ronald Ficarrotta ordered that no jail inmates will be brought to the courthouse. First appearances, bond reduction requests and probation violation hearings will continue via video conferencing.

A similar order came late Tuesday in Pinellas and Pasco counties, delaying most non-time sensitive court matters until further notice.

Most court proceedings involving juries have been canceled statewide for two weeks.

The federal courthouse in Tampa remains open, but individual judges have postponed some matters due to the pandemic.

The Hillsborough order requires civil traffic proceedings and all non-emergency criminal matters to be rescheduled after April 20.

The procedures also advise people in the courthouse hallways and judicial chambers to maintain at least six feet of “social distance.”

The Hillsborough Clerk of Court announced Tuesday that marriage ceremonies and passport application processing will be canceled starting Wednesday until further notice. Traffic tickets can be paid online through the Clerk’s website, hillsclerk.com

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Tampa Bay Times coronavirus coverage

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STORES REACT TO VIRUS: Some businesses adjust hours or announce temporary closings.

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