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Tampa mayor readies for stay-at-home order, slams federal response to coronavirus pandemic

Mayor Jane Castor said Saturday she would be surprised if a stay-at-home order isn’t issued in the coming days. If it doesn’t come from the governor, then it may come from Hillsborough County.
Tampa Mayor Jane Castor listens during a status report meeting by the Hillsborough County Emergency Policy Group at the Hillsborough County Public Safety Operations Complex on Thursday, March 12, 2020 in Tampa. [MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times]

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TAMPA — Mayor Jane Castor warned residents on Saturday to brace for an impending “stay-at-home order” in the coming days. If Gov. Ron DeSantis doesn’t issue a statewide order, then one may come from Hillsborough County leaders.

“It will be soon, I would be surprised if it’s not by Monday,” Castor told reporters Saturday. “Time is of the essence.”

Hillsborough County has yet to see the rapid spikes in COVID-19 coronavirus cases that have paralyzed other parts of the country, Castor said, but that’s only because the community has yet to offer large-scale testing to the public.

The county’s first remote, drive-thru testing site will — “hopefully” — open in the parking lot of Raymond James Stadium Sunday or Monday, Castor said. But only if the county finally receives a shipment of sample collection kits and protective gear health care workers would need to wear to protect themselves from contracting the virus.

For days, leaders from Hillsborough County’s governments and its four largest healthcare providers — Tampa General Hospital, BayCare Health System, AdventHealth, and HCA Healthcare — have assured the public that the logistics were in place to open the testing sites, first at the stadium and later at the Florida State Fairgrounds.

BayCare and TGH have been able to offer some testing on a limited scale, but all are “very concerned” about the lack of supplies, Castor said.

“I have been on the phone every day with the state emergency manager and we have been promised that collection kits are on the way,” the mayor said. “We hope that is the case and, this time, we’ll be able to do some of that remote collection.”

The issue is two-fold. Not only has the lack of collected samples caused anxiety over the true number of positive coronavirus cases in Hillsborough County, but the wait time to get the results from those samples has left many patients in limbo while self-isolating at home.

The mayor said she felt confident that DeSantis and his administration is “doing what it can at this time” while waiting on more supplies to arrive from the federal government. But she doesn’t feel same about the federal response.

Related: Florida's Ron DeSantis more cautious than other governors on coronavirus

“As I have said before,” Castor said, “This is the highest level of unpreparedness from the federal government that I have ever seen in any type of an emergency.”

Should a “stay-at-home” order be passed down from the governor, or from the panel of elected Hillsborough County officials now operating as one Emergency Policy Group, all citizens would be asked to stay in their homes and businesses deemed “non-essential” would be forced to close their doors indefinitely as the virus passes.

Castor described the “essential” businesses allowed to remain open as restaurants, pharmacies, gas stations, grocery stores, banks and “those types of things that individuals depend on every single day, all of that will remain open so there’s no need for anyone to panic.”

Neighborhood restaurants have already been ordered to close their dining rooms to the public, but those offering drive-through, delivery and takeout options would be allowed to continue operating 24-hours a day under a “stay-at-home” order. Still, shoppers and employees would be asked to maintain “social distancing” when out in public.

For the most part, Castor said she was encouraged to see the community embrace local businesses and elderly neighbors during such extreme uncertainty.

Related: Tampa Bay businesses step up to help others survive coronavirus

Tampa police have only had to speak to a handful of businesses that didn’t comply with previous county-wide directives to shut down operations, Castor said. And while police have the legal authority to enforce the emergency curfews, bans, and stay-at-home orders, the mayor said her hope is that citizens will continue to cooperate so that “the quicker we can take these steps, the quicker we’ll be able to get through this.”

“This is not going to be a police state,” Castor said. “We live in the greatest city in the nation and we have citizens that stand up and do what is necessary in times of crisis. We are asking all of our citizens to be responsible and do the right thing.”

“Let’s make kindness contagious,” Castor said.

Residents can sign up to receive text message alerts on the City of Tampa’s response to the coronavirus by texting TAMPAREADY or, for Spanish translations, TAMPALISTA to 888-777. Business owners and employees who have been affected by recent shutdowns can also get more information on financial aid and other available assistance by texting TAMPABIZ to 888-777.

The city will also continue to post live updates at www.tampagov.net/emergency-management/covid-19.

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