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TAMPA — What was supposed to be a done deal looked momentarily shaky Thursday until Hillsborough’s Emergency Policy Group ironed out last-minute disputes and voted unanimously to place the county under a safer-at-home order.
The order goes into effect at 10 p.m. on Friday.
After that, residents of Tampa, Temple Terrace, Plant City and unincorporated Hillsborough will be able to leave their homes for groceries, medicine and to perform other "necessary activities or “essential services.”
They’ll be able to exercise and walk their pets as long as they keep a six-foot distance between themselves and limit any social gatherings to 10 people or less.
And businesses specifically identified as “essential” — and also, businesses that can maintain that six-foot gap between people — can continue to operate.
Thursday’s order is the first unified and official instruction that’s been given to the 1.4 million residents of Florida’s fourth-largest county since the COVID-19 coronavirus made its presence known in Hillsborough on March 1.
The order essentially mirrors the safer-at-home order that Tampa Mayor Jane Castor proposed on Monday before it was shot down by the group.
Still, the final measure wasn’t passed without some drama.
After several members advocated scrapping a proposed nightly and weekend curfew, County Commission Chairman Les Miller said the group risked reverting to “square one."
“I don’t know what happened between yesterday and today,” Miller said, meaning the group’s apparent consensus on how to proceed after Wednesday’s meeting.
The main point of contention was the curfew, something Castor had argued against Monday. Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister and others shared concerns that the word “curfew” would confuse residents.
But after they agreed to drop the curfew order, the group quickly coalesced.
“What I like about this is that it takes away the anxiety of: ‘What hours can we do what in?’” Plant City Mayor Rick Lott said. “What we’re basically saying is that this safer-at-home policy is in place all the time, and you should stay safe at home, but it’s also allowing all of our businesses to operate seven days a week, 24 hours a day, just like they can right now so long as they’re an essential business or they meet our criteria of staying six feet apart from each other.”
The safer-at-home order is only effective for seven days at a time, but can be renewed by the group as often as they elect to renew the county’s “state of emergency,” according to county attorney Christine Beck.
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Hillsborough’s order specifies that it follows the lengthy list of “essential businesses” identified by the Department of Homeland Security, which includes utilities, law enforcement, transportation, food production and distribution, healthcare, banking and many other services. The complete list can be found at: www.cisa.gov/publication/guidance-essential-critical-infrastructure-workforce.
Instead of passing two separate orders — a safer-at-home directive and a mandatory curfew order — the policy group of eight elected officials decided in a 30-minute conference call to merge the ideas into one enforceable and mandatory safer-at-home order signed into effect by County Administrator Mike Merrill.
Issuing it as an emergency “order" grants the new rules some teeth, allowing any violations to be enforced as a second-degree misdemeanor when “voluntary compliance cannot be achieved,” Beck said.
But throwing truant residents in jail isn’t what authorities have in mind, said the sheriff.
“This would allow a mechanism for law enforcement to approach a group of juveniles — a group where we’ve seen activity spike because they believe virtual school means no school and they’re out and about — this would give us a mechanism to approach them, call their parents, and try to return them home and encourage that they are quarantined at home,” Chronister said. “Same would be applicable to adults ... I think this is the only way we’re going to break the cycle for this virus.”
Under the order, businesses that can’t maintain a safe distance of six feet, or roughly three steps, between people must close. Some examples mentioned in the meeting were nail salons, massage parlors and beauty shops.
Lott said he felt badly for those types of businesses, which are important to the community. But every decision ends up hurting someone, he said.
By the time the policy group called in to the virtual meeting Thursday, the number of positive cases in Hillsborough County had risen to 142, ranging in age from 86 to just 3. The Tampa Police Department reported 30 officers were under quarantine due to exposure to the virus and an additional 45 were being monitored by the occupational nurse, while nine others awaited test results.
Just hours earlier, the coronavirus dealt the county its first death blow.
A 69-year-old Hillsborough County man passed away in his home, the county said Thursday. Thirteen others are currently hospitalized due to COVID-19 symptoms. Only 27 percent of the county’s positive cases are believed to be travel-related.
Details of the safer-at-home order continued to emerge Thursday. For example, the city of Tampa closed all of its parks effective when the order begins Friday night. Parks will not be open to any visitors, even those running, walking or biking through.
Previously, city officials leaned toward keeping parks open but closing park bathrooms.
People continuing to congregate in parks led to the decision to shutter them, said Castor’s spokeswoman Ashley Bauman.
Linear parks like the Riverwalk and Bayshore Boulevard will remain open, she said.
During a Facebook live appearance a few hours after the vote, Castor said the city is considering further steps like closing down some streets to vehicular traffic to allow pedestrians more space to be outside.
The order, Castor said, “was a difficult decision for every member of the group...but the right thing to do."
More information and a list of frequently asked questions about the safer-at-home order can be found online at: https://www.tampagov.net/emergency-management/safer-at-home?fbclid=IwAR0PizBRVeeWroIDT6PAM1W54GB6TOGmcikvl5Bt8yp_-DjyrZpxH_BdElo
Staff Writer Christopher O’Donnell contributed to this story.
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