Hillsborough restricts all gatherings to 10 people maximum

The county has 19 patients who have tested positive for the coronavirus and is monitoring another 450 in contact with that group. “My position is that we are going to be, very shortly, overrun,” Tampa Mayor Jane Castor said.
Hillsborough County medical staff check Tampa Mayor Jane Castor's temperature on Thursday before allowing her to enter an Emergency Policy Group meeting to address the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
Hillsborough County medical staff check Tampa Mayor Jane Castor's temperature on Thursday before allowing her to enter an Emergency Policy Group meeting to address the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. [ ANASTASIA DAWSON | Times ]
Published March 20, 2020|Updated March 20, 2020

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TAMPA — Public and private gatherings are now restricted to a maximum of 10 people in Hillsborough County, officials decided Thursday. The county also remains under a state of emergency for another week, and that is unlikely to change anytime soon.

The members of the county’s Emergency Policy Group voted unanimously to further restrict the number of people allowed to congregate in public or private gatherings, cutting it down from the 50-person maximum allowed under the March 13 executive order from County Administrator Mike Merrill.

And while members of the group agreed it was premature to pass more more drastic measures — such as adopting a county-wide curfew or shuttering restaurants — it was clear that day may come soon, perhaps as soon as its next meeting on Monday.

No chances were being taken inside the group’s coronavirus war room on Thursday, a state-of-the-art call center in the county’s Public Safety Operations Complex.

One by one the county’s top leaders — the county administrator, sheriff, mayors, county commissioners, city council and school board members — had their temperatures taken and answered medical questions before placing a lanyard attached to a neon green sticky-note of approval around their necks.

The COVID-19 coronavirus has circulated throughout Hillsborough for at least three weeks, likely longer, said Dr. Douglas Holt, the director of the Florida Department of Health in Hillsborough County.

Despite the county’s efforts, the deadly disease has continued to spread. As of Thursday there were 19 people living within the county who have tested positive for COVID-19, but that’s only the cases officials know about. The lack of testing means there are far more undiagnosed cases out there.

In addition to caring for those individuals while they remain in isolation, Holt said health officials are also closely monitoring about 450 individuals who were exposed to the 19 patients while they carried the virus.

“My position is that we are going to be, very shortly, overrun,” Tampa Mayor Jane Castor said. “The only reason why we don’t have (more) cases is because we’re not testing.”

The Department of Health said that as of Thursday it only had 120 of the federally-approved coronavirus testing kits. The county has long had the equipment, infrastructure and logistical plans in place to expand testing. But he said the labs that process coronavirus tests could only accept samples collected by one of the specialized swabs dispersed by the federal government.

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“So, I want everybody to understand it’s not because we’ve been slow, it’s not because we don’t know what we’re doing,” Merrill said. “It’s because we can’t open drive-through (testing) facilities without having the ability to take the samples and having a reliable system to track them."

And like every Florida county, Hillsborough is struggling to ration its supply of personal protective equipment for first-responders and medical personnel, such as N-95 face masks, protective gowns, face shields and gloves.

The county has also identified properties that could be turned into make-shift medical facilities, such as motels for sale and other spaces. That would be needed if the county runs out of space to quarantine and treat infected patients in its hospitals. The county is also considering several proposals from the private sector for re-purposing existing facilities, Merrill said.

The county must renew its state of local emergency order every seven days, which gives Merrill the authority to carry out emergency actions delegated by the Emergency Policy Group, including “whatever prudent action is necessary to ensure the health, safety and welfare of the community” according to the county ordinance.

The new 10-person limit applies to faith-based events, sporting events, concerts, fitness centers, health clubs and theaters, the county said. The only venues not included in the ban are those that provide essential goods or services, such as grocery stores, hospitals, pharmacies, gas stations, banks and shelters. Restaurants are subject to a different restriction, set by the governor — a maximum of 50 percent occupancy.

Most government agencies and businesses offering non-essential services have already closed their doors, limited service hours or instructed employees to work remotely from their homes.

Hillsborough County Tax Collector Doug Belden on Thursday closed all of his agency’s branch offices until further notice to the public. Tax collector personnel will continue answering calls, processing mail and handling online business.

Belden’s announcement comes the day after Hillsborough County Property Appraiser Bob Henriquez suspended all office operations until further notice and Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer announced his offices would be closed until April 20.

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