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Tampa Mayor Jane Castor and Hillsborough County tussle over stay-at-home order

The mayor has ordered city residents to stay home starting Wednesday at midnight. County Administrator Mike Merrill issued an order saying she can’t do it.

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UPDATE: Tampa Bay leaders are divided on whether to order residents to stay at home to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Here’s where the leaders in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando counties stand.

TAMPA — A day after a county emergency group shot down her plan for a countywide shelter-in-place order, Mayor Jane Castor said she’ll order city residents to stay at home after midnight Wednesday.

“Here’s the deal: It allows movement. It allows personal freedom,” said the mayor in a Facebook Live appearance in her office Tuesday.

Castor’s brief online remarks came shortly after Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill issued his own administrative order saying that no portion of the county will be under such an order until the county decides.

That would include the city of Tampa.

Merrill’s order now brings city and county government into open conflict over whether to require the city’s more than 400,000 residents to follow their mayor’s directive or the county’s authority.

Although the Tampa Bay Times submitted questions about the conflict to the mayor’s office in advance of her live remote appearance, they weren’t among the questions asked on camera by spokeswoman Ashley Bauman. Instead, Bauman issued the following statement:

"The Mayor will continue to take the steps necessary to protect the residents of Tampa.”

Merrill’s order, obtained by the Times, states the following:

“Pursuant to the discussions which took place at the Emergency Policy Group meeting of March 23, 2020 the vote by the Group to not institute a Stay-at-Home Order at this time, and in order to ensure unity of action throughout the county, I am confirming that decision by directing that no Stay-at-Home order shall be applicable in any portion of Hillsborough County until further direction by the Emergency Policy Group, unless as may be necessary under my delegated authority.”

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor speaks during a news conference about the recent coronavirus pandemic Thursday, March 12, 2020 in Tampa. [CHRIS URSO | Times]

Castor said in the Facebook Live appearance that her order wasn’t complicated and would allow people to move freely to perform essential tasks. Her spokeswoman later said the exact time of the order still hasn’t been finalized, but said it was targeted for 12:01 a.m. Thursday.

Meanwhile, the Hilllsborough Emergency Policy Group, which county officials say has the final say on such orders, moved up its scheduled meeting by one day. They will now meet on Wednesday. Castor, a member of that body, lost a vote to implement a countywide stay-at-home ban at its Monday meeting. No other member supported her bid to begin the more restrictive measures, although County Commissioner Kimberly Overman agreed it needed to be discussed at the group’s next meeting.

City Attorney Gina Grimes said earlier Tuesday that absent a county plan for a stay-at-home order, state law gives the mayor authority to implement one for the city.

“We’re going to move forward on our own,” Grimes said. According to the draft documents, the order would be valid for seven days and could be renewed.

The city’s order would make violations a second degree misdemeanor which carries a penalty of up to 60 days imprisonment and/or a $500 fine. In recent days. Tampa Bay jails have been releasing non-violent inmates.

Castor, during her Facebook Live appearance, said the city isn’t looking at the order “as an enforcement issue.” She didn’t elaborate.

The latest working draft of city’s the five-page order was obtained by the Tampa Bay Times through a public records request.

People would still be allowed to go outside for exercise and walking their pets. They still could go to grocery stores and pharmacies and take care of family members, among other basic necessities. They could visit the doctor or veterinarian. They could maintain their property.

If residents are on vacation, they can return. But they should cancel planned vacations, according to the accompanying explanation. People should not visit families or friends unless there is an urgent need.

Restaurants would be allowed to stay open for delivery or pick-up. Liquor stores, pet stores and convenience stores would also remain open.

Workers in essential jobs would still be allowed to use daycare.

Businesses that would be allowed to stay open include: hotels, delivery services for food products, banks, plumbers, electricians, auto repair shops, hardware and pool supply shops, legal and accounting firms, media, ride-sharing services, airlines and a host of other services to allow people to meet their basic needs, according to the draft document.

In an accompanying “Frequently Asked Questions” document, the mayor’s order says people should not go to work unless they fall into specific categories of essential services, including public sector, public health and health care workers, on-duty military service members, social services and charitable groups including animal shelters.

Other sectors include chemical commercial facilities, communications, critical manufacturing, defense industrial base, emergency services, energy, financial services, food and agriculture, government facilities, information technology, nuclear reactors, materials and waste transportation systems, government facilities, water and wastewater systems and permitted construction projects within the city.

City officials emphasized that the draft document was not final and could change.

Although state law requires the city to comply with county emergency plans, Grimes said because the group rejected Castor’s proposal Monday, the county doesn’t have a working plan for a stay-at-home order. Absent such a plan, the city is authorized to create its own, she said.

As long as the state emergency order remains in effect, the mayor would not have to seek approval from the City Council, said Andrea Zelman, deputy city attorney.

County officials previously contested the city’s legal interpretation. Commissioner Les Miller posted a video over the weekend saying such an order could only be made by Merrill, the county administrator, in consultation with the county’s Emergency Policy Group, the same body that rejected Castor’s plan.

Meanwhile, City Council members, who haven’t met in public since Castor issued a declaration of emergency powers on March 12, said earlier Tuesday that they mostly support her proceeding alone on a stay-at-home order if necessary. But not without some reservations.

Council Chairman Luis Viera says he’ll support whatever Castor decides, but prefers a broader coalition of local governments if possible.

“I think it’s important that this be a regional compact. We need to have all hands on deck for something like that,” Viera said Tuesday.

Bill Carlson thinks similarly. A countywide or, ideally, a statewide order by Gov. Ron DeSantis would be the best outcome.

“I think it needs to be coordinated. If it’s not it won’t work,” Carlson said.

But other council members think the mayor needs to act now. Waiting would cost lives and likely be regretted in a few weeks’ time, they said.

John Dingfelder said the county emergency group’s decision Monday was unfortunate, but he contacted Castor first thing Tuesday morning to encourage the city to go it alone if necessary.

If Tampa leads, others will jump on board, Dingfelder believes.

“I think once the city does it, hopefully, St. Pete and Pinellas will follow, then the (county’s emergency policy group) will follow,” he said.

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.

Miller has warned against the city going alone on an order shutting down non-essential business, shuttering parks and other measures intended to stall the spread of coronavirus. The county commission chairman said it would cause unnecessary waste and confusion.

Dingfelder said that’s the price of keeping people safe.

“I think it’s unfortunate that there might be some confusion. But at the end of the day we have to err on the side of caution,” he said.

The length of any order matters, said council member Guido Maniscalco. The council’s youngest member at 35, Maniscalco says his Facebook feed is full of people lamenting lost jobs and shuttered businesses. He would prefer a 15-day order and no more than 30 days.

But he said he applauds Castor for getting out in front of a public health crisis. And he supports a citywide order.

“If that’s what it takes to flatten the curve. The longer we wait the worse it will be,” Maniscalco said.

Joseph Citro said since the virus is considered to have an incubation period of 14 days, he’d support a stay-at-home order for 28 days to make sure its spread is slowed.

“I would be in favor of this short-term lockdown of the city,” Citro said.

Charlie Miranda, the council’s oldest member at 79, said Castor needs to do whatever she can to help save lives.

“You can bring back the economy but you can’t bring back a life," he said.

Council member Orlando Gudes released a statement saying any order should consider the needs of people in danger of eviction and those who are facing financial and family pressures because of the pandemic.

Times Staff Writer Tracey McManus contributed to this report.

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