Tampa Bay is divided on ordering residents to stay home to slow coronavirus

Tampa’s mayor wants to order residents to stay home. Hillsborough County’s administrator says she can’t do that. Pinellas County could pass its own order. Tampa Bay’s divisions are showing in a time of crisis.
Tampa Bay leaders are divided on whether to order residents to stay at home and restrict their movements to slow the coronavirus. Tampa Mayor Jane Castor (top left) wants to issue a shelter in place order for her city. But Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill (top right) countermanded her order. St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman (bottom left) supports such an order, and Pinellas County Administrator Barry Burton (bottom right) and the county commission is set to consider that order on Wednesday.
Tampa Bay leaders are divided on whether to order residents to stay at home and restrict their movements to slow the coronavirus. Tampa Mayor Jane Castor (top left) wants to issue a shelter in place order for her city. But Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill (top right) countermanded her order. St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman (bottom left) supports such an order, and Pinellas County Administrator Barry Burton (bottom right) and the county commission is set to consider that order on Wednesday. [ Times ]
Published March 25, 2020|Updated March 25, 2020

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Hillsborough to enact evening curfew and county-wide ‘safer-at-home’ order for coronavirus

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

Tampa Bay leaders on Tuesday moved toward ordering wide swaths of the region to stay at home to slow the coronavirus. Tampa’s mayor was ready to issue a citywide directive telling city residents to do so. The Pinellas County Commission drafted its own order to limit public movement save for essential tasks. St. Petersburg’s mayor said he supported it.

Then Hillsborough County slammed on the brakes.

Hours after Tampa Mayor Jane Castor announced her plan, Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill issued his own order countermanding hers:

No portion of Hillsborough can shelter in place until county leaders decide to do so, Merrill declared. That includes the city of Tampa.

Yet on the other side of the bay, Pinellas County officials drafted a “safer at home” order that the County Commission is scheduled to discuss Wednesday morning.

Merrill’s order means Tampa Bay’s largest city and county are now at odds over how to slow the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Related: ‘The cost of happy talk’: Medical experts warn of death toll if shutdowns don’t happen now

Castor didn’t back down. Her office said she’ll issue an order for Tampa residents to restrict their movements starting at 12:01 a.m. Thursday.

Said Castor’s spokeswoman:

“The mayor will continue to take the steps necessary to protect the residents of Tampa.”

Tampa Bay is a famously fractured region of more than 3 million residents divided among multiple municipalities. Regional cooperation has been the exception, not the rule, since Pinellas seceded from Hillsborough 108 years ago. But never before has the region faced such a crisis.

“The biggest cities in Tampa Bay are working together, as is Pinellas County, and that constitutes regionalism,” said St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman in a text to the Tampa Bay Times. “Hillsborough County should come around and join us as soon as possible.”

Related: NYC travelers to Florida must self-isolate for 3 weeks, list contacts, DeSantis says

Meanwhile Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday asked Floridians to take more precautions: He wants those 65 and older and people with serious medical conditions to stay home for the next two weeks.

Yet the governor continued to push back against those calling for him to issue a statewide stay-at-home order as Florida’s confirmed COVID-19 cases approached 1,500.

“You wouldn’t want to do (stay-at-home orders) on a community where the virus hasn’t spread,” DeSantis said. “There are going to be upheavals on their lives and that’s not something we want to do flippantly. The (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) has not said to do a statewide lockdown.”

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Thus continued the mixed signals being sent from Washington, D.C., to Tallahassee to Tampa Bay about how to implement what medical experts say is the best hope for containing the pandemic: Get people to stay home as much as possible and self-isolate to slow the contagious disease before it overwhelms health care systems everywhere.

Related: Tampa Bay has its first coronavirus death. This time, the state says it’s for real.

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Castor said in a Facebook Live video on Tuesday that her order wasn’t complicated, that people could still move freely to perform essential tasks.

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

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

Restaurants would be allowed to stay open for delivery or pick-up. Liquor stores, pet stores and convenience stores would also remain open. Businesses such as hotels, grocery delivery services, 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 could still operate, according to the draft document.

Hillsborough County contemplated issuing its own shelter-in-place order on Monday. But the county’s Emergency Policy Group — composed of three county commissioners, three city mayors, the sheriff, the county administrator and the school board chairwoman — denied Castor’s request to do so. County officials say the group has the final say on such orders.

Related: Hillsborough officials to consider countywide curfew Wednesday to fight coronavirus

To further complicate matters, the Emergency Policy Group said it will instead consider a countywide curfew during Wednesday’s 1:30 p.m. conference call. The curfew would be in effect from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m.

Tampa city attorney Gina Grimes said that, absent a county plan for a stay-at-home order, state law gives the mayor authority to implement one for her city.

“We’re going to move forward on our own,” Grimes said.

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Pinellas County officials on Tuesday drafted their own proposed “safer at home” order that could soon take effect.

Like Tampa’s proposed order, Pinellas’ draft resolution would order residents to remain at home except for necessary activities such as obtaining groceries and medical services, caring for family members and accessing essential services like gas stations, banks and laundromats. It would also allow outdoor activity like walking pets, hiking and biking as long as residents follow federal guidelines of staying 6 feet away from others.

Related: Pinellas County prepares ‘safer at home’ order. It could be approved Wednesday.

The proposal specifies three dozen categories of essential businesses that would be allowed to remain open, such as groceries; infrastructure like utilities, food distribution and construction; government services; health care providers; and hotels.

At least four of the seven commissioners have signaled their support for issuing the order to slow the virus. The first COVID-19-related death in Pinellas County, a 67-year-old, was reported on Tuesday.

The Pinellas County Commission is set to vote on the proposed order at 9 a.m.Wednesday.

Kriseman also announced his support for the order in a Facebook Live video broadcast Tuesday, but doesn’t think St. Petersburg should have to act on its own. A majority of the City Council members backed the mayor.

“St. Petersburg, we don’t want to be an island on this. It doesn’t do us any good,” the mayor said. “That’s not the best way to approach this. But if we have to do it that way, we would.”

Related: St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman says stay-at-home order is coming

This week, Pinellas County Administrator Barry Burton stressed the need for Tampa Bay leaders to coordinate on a regionwide order keeping people home as much as possible so neighboring cities and counties can avoid conflicting policies.

“The more we can do as a region, the better,” Burton said Monday. “People don’t just travel around Tampa. They come here, they commute over there. The more we can do as a region is important. I think it’s important our messaging is consistent.”

But in northern Tampa Bay, the governments of Pasco and Hernando counties were not contemplating tougher measures.

Pasco County has closed its libraries, beaches and senior centers and other facilities. County administrator Dan Biles said Pasco leaders are not ready to issue their own shelter-in-place order. Right now, the county will continue to emphasize social distancing.

“We don’t want to take a step that may not be necessary based on the data we’re seeing,’’ Biles said Tuesday.

Hernando County leaders also were not contemplating a shelter-in-place order on Tuesday.

Times/Herald staff writer Samantha J. Gross and Times staff writers C.T. Bowen and Barbara Behrendt contributed to this report.

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