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Local governments are giving themselves special powers in the time of coronavirus

Citizens could be made to operate under starkly different rules depending on where they live
The Covid-19 update beach closure sign along the sand at North Shore Park on Friday, March 20, 2020 in St. Petersburg. Pinellas County has announced that all public beaches will close tonight at 11:59 p.m.
The Covid-19 update beach closure sign along the sand at North Shore Park on Friday, March 20, 2020 in St. Petersburg. Pinellas County has announced that all public beaches will close tonight at 11:59 p.m. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Mar. 23, 2020

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OLDSMAR — In the middle of a global pandemic, things move too quickly for local governments to behave like normal.

That’s why governments all over the Tampa Bay region are passing local state of emergency proclamations. Hillsborough County, Pinellas County and the cities of St. Petersburg, Tampa and Clearwater are just a few of the governments to have declared an emergency in recent days.

The measures give more centralized powers to a municipality’s executive — a mayor, city manager or county administrator — to move the wheels of government faster during this crisis. For example, under many of the recently passed orders, an unelected city manager has been given greater authority to spend public money.

But in Pinellas County, which has 24 municipalities, the wording — and the meaning — of the resolutions vary widely from city to city. That means citizens could be made to operate under starkly different rules depending on where they live.

In Oldsmar, for example, the city’s emergency proclamation related to the coronavirus references specific actions that Mayor Eric Seidel can take during a time of emergency. Among them: suspending or limiting “the sale, dispensing or transportation of alcoholic beverages, firearms, explosives and combustibles.”

When asked whether he planned to take advantage of that section, which was taken from the city’s code of ordinances, Seidel said “not at all.”

“None of that applies to this situation,” Seidel said.

Other cities’ proclamations are worded more broadly. Safety Harbor’s emergency order, which was ratified by the City Commission in a meeting last Monday, allows City Manager Matt Spoor to take “whatever action is necessary to ensure the health, safety, and welfare of the community” as it relates to the coronavirus.

Safety Harbor is one example of a town in which an unelected city manager has been given extra authority by an emergency declaration to spend money or pass regulations. Clearwater, Dunedin and St. Pete Beach are others.

Spoor said he still planned to run any emergency measures by his City Commission. But he acknowledged that formal biweekly commission meetings would likely not be adequate to address the COVID-19 outbreak, which has paralyzed life in the county.

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COVID-19, which is caused by a novel form of the coronavirus, is extremely contagious. The virus can survive on surfaces for hours, and it’s often transmitted from person to person through respiratory droplets, experts say. In order to contain the spread of the disease as much as possible, health officials have urged governments to take drastic steps to limit social gatherings.

Related: Social distancing Do’s and Don’ts: How to slow down a pandemic

“The speed at which decisions are made and things are changing during this pandemic is unreal,” Spoor said. “It’s impressive, but it’s also scary.”

Spoor’s case in point: Under St. Petersburg’s emergency proclamation, Mayor Rick Kriseman mandated this week that restaurants operate at 50 percent capacity starting Tuesday, conforming with a previous state order by Gov. Ron DeSantis. But by Friday, DeSantis had restricted all restaurants in the state to take-out or delivery orders.

Kriseman’s actions to limit public gatherings were a high-profile local example of a city executive using emergency powers to shape city life. But such situations are happening across the county.

Related: Coronavirus Florida: Governor orders all restaurants closed except for takeout, delivery service

In Oldsmar, Seidel issued an executive order indefinitely closing all city flea markets starting Friday.

In Safety Harbor, Spoor closed City Hall to the public last week. City staff are now giving out building permits based on inspections done via video chat, Spoor said.

Largo, Pinellas County’s third-largest city, has taken a different approach entirely. The city has not passed an emergency proclamation.

“Leadership feels that most actions that would be implemented by such a declaration are better coordinated as a regional effort,” city spokeswoman Kate O’Connell Oyer said.

Pinellas County Attorney Jewel White noted that higher authorities have tended to nullify the actions of smaller governments during the COVID-19 outbreak.

For example, Last week, Clearwater voted to close its world-famous beach. Before the order could go into effect, Pinellas County closed all of its beaches, Clearwater included.

White noted local governments are used to the idea of emergency proclamations. In the aftermath of hurricanes, the orders can facilitate disaster reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Administration, she said.

But this state of emergency is different from the average hurricane in one very important way, the county attorney noted.

“We’re quite honestly looking at needing to renew this thing for the foreseeable future,” White said.

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Tampa Bay Times coronavirus coverage

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