Hillsborough votes down coronavirus shelter-in-place plan

The county’s emergency policy group also decided to wait to discuss a possible curfew until Thursday’s meeting. Tampa Mayor Jane Castor’s plan to tell people to stay home was pushed off indefinitely.
Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor and Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister listen to presentations during a recent county emergency policy group meeting.
Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor and Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister listen to presentations during a recent county emergency policy group meeting. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published March 23, 2020|Updated March 23, 2020

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TAMPA — A group of Hillsborough County elected officials voted Monday to wait on ordering the county’s 1.4 million residents to stay home, defeating an effort by Tampa Mayor Jane Castor to jump start a regional push.

For now, county leaders decided, nothing would change in one of the state’s largest counties, which has more than 70 cases of coronavirus.

Castor and Hillsborough County Commissioner Kimberly Overman voted against a motion by Commissioner Sandy Murman to discuss a 10 p.m.-to-5 a.m. curfew at the county’s emergency policy group’s next meeting Thursday. The group also agreed to discuss a shelter-in-place policy at some future date.

The other members of the group voted in support of Murman’s curfew motion: Sheriff Chad Chronister, Commissioner Les Miller, School Board chairwoman Melissa Snively, Plant City Mayor Rick Lott and Temple Terrace vice mayor Andy Ross.

Castor implored her colleagues to pass the shelter-in-place policy, saying it would cost lives to wait.

“We were all elected to do the right thing,” she said.

Later in a question and answer session with reporters, Miller, the group’s chairman, said Castor’s contention that people would die was wrong. “That puts a panic in people,” he said. “It’s the worst thing in the world to do.”

Castor declined to respond to Miller’s criticism. But she said in a Facebook Live appearance that she is considering issuing a citywide order. “We’re in talks,” she said without elaborating.

At the meeting, Murman said a stay-at-home or shelter-in-place order, much like what has been ordered in California, New York, Illinois and Broward County, was a big step that needed more discussion.

“I really don’t want to rush it," Murman said. “It’s got to be right.”

Murman said she worried about the impact of such an order on businesses. Plant City’s Lott said he thinks current measures like canceling schools and shutting down dining-in options at restaurants have already had a big effect. A county-by-county policy would be confusing, he said.

The contentious meeting lasted more than two hours and was conducted via a group conference call and broadcast on television and the county’s social media accounts.

At the outset, Miller said its members needed to work together.

“Working together is much more productive than one partner attempting to do it alone,” Miller said, adding that multiple efforts lead to wasted time and supplies. “We must be sure we speak with one voice so the public does not get confused or misinformed.”

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Miller’s comments came amidst rising tension between local leaders. Castor said this weekend that a stay-at-home order would be coming shortly, expressing frustration that no action had been taken. Also on Saturday, Miller posted a video that said only Merrill, the county administrator, has the authority to make such an order in the county. He said residents had become confused about whether such an order had been declared.

At last week’s emergency group meeting, Castor suggested the group delegate a smaller three-person committee to consider making a countywide declaration.

During Monday’s discussion, Castor said the mayors of Chicago, San Francisco and Seattle have said that ordering people to shelter in place early was crucial in avoiding widespread infection. She repeatedly urged the other members to support her plan, which she said was under discussion in Pinellas and St. Petersburg.

They didn’t go along. Overman said she had just seen the draft order less than a half hour before the group’s meeting began. Murman said she wasn’t happy that policy-making had been underway without the group’s knowledge.

Overman agreed with Castor that the county shouldn’t wait to discuss a shelter-in-place order. For that reason, she couldn’t support Murman’s motion, she said, preferring instead to discuss a possible order at Thursday’s meeting.

Answering reporters’ questions after the vote, Miller said he worries about Hillsborough being the only county “on this side of the state” to declare a shelter-in-place policy. He wondered how it could affect commuters from Pasco, Manatee and Pinellas. He said he didn’t want to pursue a piecemeal approach. And county administrator Merrill said such an order would cause an immediate rise in unemployment, which would strain the county’s social services.

But Miller didn’t rule out revisiting a countywide order if the state didn’t act.

Across the bay, leaders were closely tracking Hillsborough’s actions.

Pinellas County Administrator Barry Burton said although Pinellas’ March 13 state of emergency declaration gives him authority to unilaterally issue a stay-in-place order, he said he would prefer the county commission make the call as an elected body.

On Monday, the majority of Pinellas County Commissioners said they supported a shelter in place order that would allow residents to exercise outdoors and keep essential businesses open. The Commission could discuss a proposed order on Thursday.

Related: Pinellas County expected to discuss shelter in place order, still allow recreation and essential businesses

“That would be something the commission itself should come together and discuss and act on,” Burton said. “That’s a significant issue and I think requires debate from our elected officials.”

Burton stressed the importance of regional consistency.

“People don’t just travel around Tampa, they come here, they commute over there," he said. "The more we can do as a region is important. I think it’s important our messaging is consistent. Not that I’m waiting for them, but I think it’s important for us. We can make our own actions but I don’t want to do it in a vacuum.”

In the region’s second-largest city, St. Petersburg spokeswoman Yolanda Fernandez said no stay-at-home order would likely be made in the immediate future by Mayor Rick Kriseman.

“As they assess the situation and we take a look at the needs and how the city’s responding, the mayor will make any future determinations from that. But right now there’s nothing imminent," she said.

Kriseman later tweeted, urging the governor to issue a shelter-in-place order quickly.

Related: St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman pushes for statewide stay-at-home order

“Without such an order, St. Petersburg and municipalities across the state are likely to move forward on their own," he said.

Clearwater City Manager Bill Horne said his city has no plans to issue a shelter-in-place order on its own.

Times staff writers Tracey McManus, Josh Solomon, Anastasia Dawson and Kirby Wilson contributed to this report.

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