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

Most of the commissioners support a measure to limit non-essential movement. They could vote on a measure as soon as Thursday.
The Pinellas County Courthouse is seen in this undated Google Earth image.
The Pinellas County Courthouse is seen in this undated Google Earth image. [ Google Earth ]
Published March 23, 2020

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Pinellas County Commission could discuss as early as Thursday whether to implement a shelter in place order for its nearly 1 million residents as a strategy to slow the spread of coronavirus.

Although county administrator Barry Burton has authority under the county’s state of emergency resolution to unilaterally issue an order on his own, he said such a measure will be left up to the seven commissioners.

Commissioner Karen Seel said on Monday she discussed with Burton potential frameworks that would still allow residents to exercise outside as long as they remain six feet away from others and for essential businesses to remain open. Such orders have been implemented in a dozen states, including California and New York. They require residents to stay at home as much as possible but permit them to travel to essential businesses like groceries, laundromats, gas stations and a series of other services.

“If we can flatten the curve now, we can get people back to normalcy faster rather than if we wait for a crisis," said Seel, who unsuccessfully pushed for a voluntary shelter in place resolution last week. "I don’t want it out of control where people are dying and sick and passing it on. We need a methodical way to address this so we can save people.”

On Monday, four of the seven Pinellas commissioners appeared supportive of such a measure.

Related: Coronavirus: Will ‘shelter in place’ happen in Florida? And what does that mean?

At a press conference on Monday, Gov. Ron DeSantis reiterated his resistance to issue a statewide shelter in place despite mounting criticism amid a growing public health crisis. He announced he will require anyone arriving from New York, a state that leads the country’s infections with 20,000 cases and issued its shelter in place order on Friday, to self-isolate for 14 days.

Earlier in the day, a group of Hillsborough County elected officials voted 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 effort. Although they are expected to vote on a 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew on Thursday, Castor’s plan to shelter in place was pushed off indefinitely.

Castor said later on a Facebook Live video that the city is considering issuing its own shelter in place order.

Burton stressed the importance of regional consistency for any shelter in place requirement, but said such a measure could prove necessary “for people to take this seriously.”

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“The more we can do as a region is important," Burton said. "We can make our own actions but I don’t want to do it in a vacuum.”

Pinellas Commission Chair Pat Gerard said she is in favor of Pinellas County moving forward with a shelter in place order that would still allow for essential services to remain open and that would permit residents to access public parks.

“I think we want to cut this thing off before it gets really bad,” Gerard said.

Commissioner Janet Long said she supported “taking the next step” while still allowing for essential movements outside of the home.

“We’re not talking about a total lock down,” she said. “It needs to be a a shelter-in-place and send a strong message that we’re not messing around."

Gov. Ron DeSantis has issued two executive orders that have restricted certain public interactions statewide. His March 17 order required all bars and nightclubs to close, limited restaurants to 50 percent capacity and mandated that groups no bigger than 10 people congregate on beaches.

Then on Friday, DeSantis ordered all restaurants to end in-service dining, limiting their services to take-out only. The order also closed all gyms and prohibited sales for on-site alcohol consumption. The Pinellas County Commission closed all public beaches last week, following cities like Miami and Fort Lauderdale.

Related: New Yorkers flying to Florida to self-quarantine for 14 days, Gov. DeSantis says

But some local officials are pushing the governor to go farther. St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman released a statement on Twitter saying “A statewide, uniform, reasonable order limiting non-essential movement and activity will better protect Floridians and prove far more effective at flattening the curve than multiple policies among 67 counties and hundreds of cities and towns."

Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch retweeted Kriseman’s statement with an “Amen."

Commissioner Charlie Justice said any order needs to have the least restrictions and make sure people take seriously the dangers congregating in large groups. He said he doesn’t want to shut down small businesses, but he also doesn’t want to see people wandering aimlessly through stores. He said he heard anecdotes that people are crowding book and craft stores.

“The biggest thing is what counts as essential services,” Justice said about a possible emergency order. “I look forward to hearing more from our health and operations professionals.”

Commissioner Kathleen Peters said she is examining data about the pandemic weighing whether the county should issue an order to ask people to stay in their homes.

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