Update: This story includes new information about the county’s curfew.
TAMPA — Hillsborough officials decided Monday to toughen their message on social distancing, voting 5-3 to impose a nightly curfew. But there was confusion as to exactly what residents can and cannot do when it takes effect.
The curfew, which also started Monday and will run nightly between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m., will be another tool for law enforcement to curb large gatherings, which have started to occur more frequently, officials said.
Tampa Mayor Jane Castor also proposed another lifestyle change for the county’s 1.4 million residents: a requirement that people wear masks when in public starting Thursday. Those masks can be homemade. Professional-grade masks would not be required.
After approving the curfew, the county’s Emergency Policy Group appeared to be ready to go along with the mayor’s proposal on masks. But officials decided to take a formal vote at their Thursday meeting to allow time to spread the word among residents.
Arguing for the curfew, County Commissioner Les Miller ticked off a spate of recent violations of the county’s safer-at-home order including house and yard parties.
One gathering over the weekend in East Tampa included more than 100 individuals, Miller said.
“That is absolutely absurd,” he said.
Sheriff Chad Chronister said his department has received 214 complaints about violations of the county’s rules on social distancing, including 38 over Easter weekend. A curfew would make it easier to get the message across that people need to stay at home, he said.
The penalties for violating the curfew would be the same as those under the safer-at-home order: a second-degree misdemeanor carrying a fine of up to $500 or up to 60 days in jail.
“It’s about messaging,”the sheriff said.
Miller said police wouldn’t arrest anyone for violating the curfew on Monday. No one with a legal reason to be out after curfew — such as going to work at a job deemed essential — would be required to have documentation proving it.
Initially, in a post-meeting question-and-answer session with reporters, Miller said activities such as jogging or walking the dog would violate the curfew.
When asked to clarify that Monday night, Miller said “walking the dog, jogging is not essential.”
The city of Tampa’s twitter account, however, tweeted that jogging and dog walking were allowed.
When asked about the conflict, city spokeswoman Ashley Bauman said: “We’ve yet to see the final order.”
But Miller was certain about what the order will say: “The city of Tampa is wrong.”
Miller, Chronister, Castor, County Commissioner Sandy Murman and School Board chairwoman Melissa Snively all voted for the curfew. Plant City Mayor Rick Lott, Temple Terrace Vice Mayor Andy Ross and County Commissioner Kimberly Overman voted against it.
Lott said he thought imposing a curfew would confuse and anger residents.
“The system is working,” he said before the vote. “We’ll be causing more harm than good.”
Ross agreed, saying he thought a curfew would penalize the vast majority of people who are following the rules on only leaving their homes to conduct essential business and practicing social distancing. And he pointed out there wasn’t any legal difference between current penalties in the safer-at-home order and a curfew.
“It’s almost like we’re putting a law on top of a law,” Ross said.
Castor, who had opposed a curfew in March in favor of a safer-at-home order, said she now thinks a curfew would be a good tool for police to break up large gatherings, at least for the next few weeks.
But she cautioned against allowing too many exceptions that would make it unenforceable.
Miller said the time had come for a curfew. The safer-at-home order hadn’t been enough to keep people, especially younger people, from gathering in large groups.
“We’re trying to save lives,” he said.
If the county doesn’t impose stricter measures, it could witness “a U-shaped curve” where infections, which have been dropping, suddenly spike back up.
Hillsborough’s turn to stricter measures contrasts with Pinellas County, which will consider opening private pools and parts of its beaches at its county commission meeting Thursday.
Earlier in the meeting, public health officials told the Hillsborough policy group that the rate of infections in the county had been showing signs of slowing, but they cautioned them not to ease restrictions.
University of South Florida official Thomas Unnasch said the university would debut an online survey later this week which would help the region track coronavirus hot spots by having people experiencing symptoms call researchers. It would be a good way to help keep track of potential infections while the area waits for more widespread testing to become available, he said.
Unnasch mentioned Austria as an example of a country that had mandated mask-wearing early on in its epidemic and saw good results. He and other USF officials supported Castor’s proposal.
Castor pointed to Osceola County, which now requires masks, as a model for Hillsborough.
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