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As Pinellas County’s “safer at home” order started Thursday, more than 200 deputies and police officers began delivering thousands of notices to businesses with a message and warning about keeping distance between customers and employees during the coronavirus pandemic.
The notices say people shall not congregate in groups, and groups of more than 10 are prohibited. Inn addition, people not part of the same family must remain at least 6 feet apart, and people in lines must adhere to that requirement. Businesses must post the notices in doorways.
The notice comes with a warning: “Violation of these requirements is a crime punishable by incarceration and/or a fine. Businesses in violation may be subject to closure.”
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said the key to enforcing the measure is to educate residents about the dangers of spreading the virus. He called it a health crisis of significant impact and said commissioners took “bold action” to balance the needs of people who need paychecks to feed families. If gatherings and large crowds don’t decrease in the county, he warned that commissioners could shut everything down.
“Make no mistake, we’re not playing around with this," Gualtieri said Thursday at a Clearwater shopping center. “This is very serious. We need all these business owners to help us help them. If you don’t keep that distance and keep that space, then it could get worse.”
On Wednesday, the Pinellas County Commission passed a “safer at home” directive because people crowded bookstores and held social gatherings and ignored warnings about social distancing after officials closed public access to the county’s 35 miles of beaches Friday night. Commissioners and other public officials debated the measure for more than two hours.
The order applies to all cities and unincorporated areas of Pinellas County. Gualtieri said every pool, except those at single-family homes, should be shut down. He repeatedly stressed the order is voluntary and that the county is not on a mandatory lockdown.
Gualtieri reiterated that the order closed all pools in the county, except those at single-family homes.
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Much of the enforcement will rely on residents and businesses to self police and comply with the order, Gualtieri said. His office set up a call center for people to provide tips about gatherings. Four teams of deputies will roam the county looking for violators. The phone number to report violations is (727) 582-TIPS (8477).
To notify businesses, the Sheriff’s Office ordered about 40,000 flyers. Blanketing the county could take through the weekend. Police departments in St. Petersburg, Clearwater and Tarpon Springs are also posting notices in those cities.
The measure directs 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 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. As a result of the county order, St. Petersburg on Thursday began putting up barricades around playgrounds and fitness areas, but the parks remain open.
Pinellas was the first county in the Tampa Bay area to enact such an order. Hillsborough County passed a similar order on Thursday, which will take effect at 10 p.m. Friday.
Pinellas joined a growing number of municipalities across the state that have enacted such measures, like Miami, Alachua County and Gainesville, and Orange County. Such orders have been implemented in a dozen states, including California and New York.
Pinellas commission Chair Pat Gerard said the community needs to cooperate and follow all directives to help control the virus.
“I’m hoping people will get the message,” she said at the shopping center. “You need to behave like you’re one who has the disease. You may be in danger of infecting your loved ones. Help us help our community.”
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