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Pinellas orders county to stay at home amid coronavirus, first in Tampa Bay to enact measure

Pinellas County’s order will take effect Thursday and allow for outdoor exercise and trips for groceries, medical needs and jobs deemed essential.

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As a further measure to curb the spread of coronavirus, the Pinellas County Commission on Wednesday unanimously directed the county’s nearly 1 million residents to stay at home except for essential activity like trips for groceries, medical needs and jobs deemed essential.

The “safer at home” directive, which takes effect at 11:27 a.m. on Thursday and will last at least seven days, also permits residents to exercise outside as long as they keep six feet from others and avoid groups larger than 10 people.

The step was needed, county administrator Barry Burton said, because even after officials closed public access to the county’s 35 miles of beaches Friday night, people still crowded bookstores and held social gatherings, ignoring warnings that social distancing could stop the spread of the virus.

Pinellas County Administrator Barry Burton, left, and Pinellas County Attorney Jewel White speak to the Pinellas County Commission on Wednesday, March 25, 2020, while attending the commission meeting in downtown Clearwater. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

“Our health professionals are pleading with us that if we don’t act now, it will be too late,” Burton said. “The residents of Pinellas County and the Tampa Bay area need to take this seriously."

Related: Your questions on Pinellas County’s stay at home order, answered

The directive specifies three dozen categories of businesses that are considered essential and can remain open, including groceries; infrastructure like utilities, distributors and construction; government services; healthcare providers; gas stations; restaurants serving only to-go food; news media; laundromats, banks and hotels. It keeps open parks and boat ramps.

The directive allows non-essential businesses to remain open as long as they follow Centers for Disease Control social distancing guidance. Commissioner Ken Welch initially worried the exception was an “Achilles heel." But by the end of the two-hour discussion, he said it could help curb infections while not killing “more jobs than we absolutely have to.”

Boe Rushing, of Countryside, uses Lysol to sterilize the front door of his Back in the Day bookstore in downtown Dunedin on Wednesday, March 25, 2020. Rushing plans to close the store tomorrow (Thursday) at noon. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman urged the Commission to instead close all non-essential businesses, arguing the loophole defeats the purpose of limiting congregation. He envisioned the shops on the city’s popular Central Avenue will be filled with visitors on Saturday, technically complying if keeping customers six feet apart but ultimately posing a catastrophic health threat.

“The quicker we’re able to flatten the curve the shorter the impact on the economy,” Kriseman said. “If this ends up being a 30 day (order) ... It’s going to be hard on the businesses, no question. But if it’s six months, we have a whole lot more victims in our economy than those few.”

At a news conference later that day, Kriseman said he would not issue a separate order for St. Petersburg city limits.

“While I strongly disagree with the approach that was taken this morning, I believe it would be unwise to add another layer," the mayor said.

Burton said giving non-essential business owners an opportunity to self police was “a reasonable risk” given the economic impact a blanket shutdown would have on small businesses. The resolution would have to be renewed after seven days to be extended.

Esmeralda Mezuraj, of Palm Harbor, collects a take out order of cheese and pepperoni pizza while working at Tony's Pizza in downtown Dunedin on Wednesday, March 25, 2020. Mezuraj said the restaurant plans to stay open for carryout. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

“It was almost impossible to write it to deal with the different situations," Burton said. “People pleaded with us to find that balance. We think most people will do the right thing.”

Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said he supported the order. He said county officials have been flooded with pleas from business owners already reeling from the effects of the pandemic and trying to continue operating with reduced income.

He said county officials will enforce through education. Deputies will deliver notices to every business in the county that details the directive and the CDC recommendations about proper social distancing, he said.

“The message we want to send is ‘help us help you,’” Gualtieri said. “This isn’t locking down Pinellas County ... But you all need to do more.”

Gualtieri said much of enforcement will be relying on residents and businesses to self police and comply voluntarily with the order. But the county has options for those “flagrantly ignoring” the order.

From left: Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, Pinellas County Attorney Jewel White, and Pinellas County Administrator Barry Burton visit on Wednesday, March 25, 2020, in downtown Clearwater moments after the Pinellas County Commission approved a Safer at Home order to legally encourage the county's 1-million residents to stay at home except for essential activity like trips for groceries, medical needs and jobs deemed essential. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

County Attorney Jewel White said violating the order is a second degree misdemeanor punishable with up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine. White said the county also has the authority to petition the court to close down a business “should we encounter one of these really bad actors that is not practicing social distancing and following CDC guidelines and otherwise creating a danger to the community.”

“We’re putting it in your hands,” Commissioner Dave Eggers said. “Play ball. Work with us. And if you don’t, we have remedies instead of (closing) a whole category of businesses when the other 9 out of the 10 are doing what they are supposed to be doing.”

RELATED: Facing shelter-in-place order, why hasn’t Pinellas suspended evictions?

Hours after Pinellas’ vote, Hillsborough County officials its own “safer-at-home” directive for its 1.4 million residents, which they then updated on Thursday.

The steps come in the absence of statewide restrictions from Gov. Ron DeSantis, despite calls from around the nation to lockdown the third most populous state as the coronovirus infection rate soars.

From left: Landen Naumann, 11, Travis Wolfangel, 30, and Blake Naumann, 14, (all) of St. Louis, Missouri, make a pit stop for water at a public drinking fountain while touring the Pinellas Trail in downtown Dunedin on Wednesday, March 25, 2020. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Pinellas joins a growing number of municipalities across the state that have enacted such measures, like Miami, Alachua County and Gainesville, and Orange County. It was the first municipality in Tampa Bay to order residents to stay at home. Such orders have been implemented in a dozen states, including California and New York.

“This is serious,” said Dr. Ulyee Choe, the director of the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County. “We’ve never seen anything like this since 1918.”

At a Tallahassee press conference on Monday, 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 U.S. with 20,000 confirmed coronavirus cases, to self-isolate for 14 days. DeSantis said New Yorkers are fleeing their own city’s shelter in place order, which came down Friday.

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.

Darlene Woodson holds Jashaun Davis, 4, center, while getting ice cream with twin brother Aiden Davis, 4, and Charlene Mosbey, right, from a take out window at Strachan's Homemade Ice Cream store in downtown Dunedin on Wednesday, March 25, 2020. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Then on Friday, the governor 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 Beach and Fort Lauderdale.

Staff writer Josh Solomon contributed to this report.

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