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UPDATE: Hillsborough’s Emergency Policy group on Thursday ironed out last-minute disputes and voted unanimously to place the county under a safer-at-home order that will not include a curfew. Read the full updated story here.
TAMPA — After a tumultuous Tuesday of conflicting calls for stay-at-home orders, curfews, and other attempts at slowing the spread of the coronavirus, Hillsborough County officials found compromise Wednesday.
The county’s Emergency Policy Group asked attorneys to draft a “safer-at-home” order to keep residents at home except when they are performing essential tasks, like getting groceries. The group also asked for a curfew from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. on weekdays and 24 hours on weekends — although essential tasks can also be performed during those hours.
The policy group, made up of local city and county leaders, plans a final vote of approval Thursday in a 1:30 p.m. conference call. If approved, every Hillsborough resident, including those in Tampa, would be covered under the order.
The agreement came just hours after Pinellas County became the first in the Tampa Bay area to issue a “safer-at-home” order.
Tampa Mayor Jane Castor had previously pushed for a stay-at-home order and on Tuesday was ready to issue a citywide directive telling city residents to do so. County officials countered that she did not have the authority.
“We may not have been agreeing on how to get there, but you better believe we have the same concern on how to protect the people of this county,” County Commission Chairman Les Miller said Wednesday.
Hillsborough residents will be asked to stay home 24 hours a day, seven days a week, County Administrator Mike Merrill said. Still, there are exceptions to help maintain “quality of life” and access to essential services like grocery stores, banks and pharmacies.
Residents can still go outside and enjoy the outdoors as long as they observe physical distancing from other people, along with other recommended sanitary requirements like washing hands.
“Here’s the bottom line,” Merrill said. “Everyone should make every possible attempt to stay home unless you’re an essential business. And if you just can’t, you still have to maintain a 6-foot distance. And if you can’t, then you have no business being in that place because you’re putting yourself and everyone else at risk.”
The rules will apply to residents of Tampa, Temple Terrace, Plant City and unincorporated Hillsborough County. If approved Thursday, the rules go into effect at 10 p.m. Friday.
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The panel of elected officials and regional healthcare experts began Wednesday’s meeting with calls for collaboration and unity. Then they voted 8-0 to direct county attorneys to draft Merrill’s order, which will also effectively shut down all non-essential businesses where employees can’t work from home.
That’s been a sticking point for the group for weeks as they worked to reach a compromise that would dam the deluge of coronavirus cases among Hillsborough’s 1.4 million residents while also limiting damage done to the area’s economy.
As of Wednesday, 106 people had tested positive for the virus, with 1,682 cases reported statewide, according to the Florida Department of Health.
“We have got to take action now,” Castor said Wednesday. “If you haven’t planned for your employees to be working from home by now, it’s a little late. Our first responders are being taken off the street. I don’t know what universe some individuals are in, but we have got to take action.”
The order leans heavily on the personal responsibility of citizens and business owners to observe mandated behaviors. Residents are still allowed “unlimited ability” to go to the grocery store, pick up medicine and perform other “essential” trips.
Workers who cannot maintain a 6-foot physical distance from others are not allowed to continue working, the order states. And businesses that cannot, by definition, maintain that “physical distancing” from customers must close until further notice.
Exempted from the rules are businesses and workers deemed “essential” by the Department of Homeland Security, including, among many others, first responders and transportation workers. Officials said Wednesday businesses that telecommute or otherwise observe 6-foot social distancing can still function.
And all businesses, including those deemed “essential” under the order, are required to direct employees to telecommute when feasible and provide employment opportunities to those who lose their jobs as a result of the coronavirus pandemic by working with the county’s numerous job agencies, like CareerSource.
A final directive on the emergency order encourages those with the “financial means to increase their financial support to local charities and organizations that provide direct social service and employment services to displaced workers.”
Enforcement of the order “is going to be through education and encouragement, especially in the beginning, because what we want is for everyone to cooperate in their best interests and in the best interests of the community,” Castor said.
Officials said the situation remains fluid and additional measures may become necessary, like during hurricanes and floods.
But this ongoing crisis is something completely new, Castor said. “We are all in uncharted waters.”
Times staff writer Christopher O’Donnell contributed to this report.
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