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Lawsuits, petitions, online outrage follow Hillsborough’s nighttime curfew

Teens and adults alike have complained about the mandatory curfew passed Monday by the county’s Emergency Policy Group.
A pedestrian crosses East Kennedy Boulevard and Franklin Street, Tampa, wearing a protective mask, Wednesday, April 15, 2020. Others in the background do not wear masks. Officials have recommended people to wear masks when outside during the coronavirus pandemic.
A pedestrian crosses East Kennedy Boulevard and Franklin Street, Tampa, wearing a protective mask, Wednesday, April 15, 2020. Others in the background do not wear masks. Officials have recommended people to wear masks when outside during the coronavirus pandemic. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]
Published Apr. 15, 2020|Updated Apr. 15, 2020

TAMPA — Whether it’s called social distancing, a stay at home order, or a safer-at-home policy, Hillsborough County leaders say they’ve had the same intent all along.

If you’re inside Hillsborough County lines, and you aren’t performing an essential duty like working in a nursing home or buying groceries for your family, you need to stay home.

But the isolation was already making people restless. So for some, news of a new local restriction — a mandatory 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew approved Monday — was a step too far.

A Tampa attorney vowed to file an injunction against the county by end of business on Wednesday. Another lawsuit was filed in federal court by a Tampa woman representing herself.

“The county’s action spits in the face of the citizens of Hillsborough County and its surrounding regions to suggest that the voluntary sacrifices and mitigation made by county and non-county residents for more than a month to slow the spread of COVID-19 is worthless,” LaShawn Washington wrote in the motion.

U.S. District Judge Tom Barber denied Washington’s request for a restraining order Tuesday, but said her case could continue if she submits a revised complaint.

A petition on Change.org to reverse the curfew had drawn more than 2,170 signatures by Wednesday afternoon. Comments on a Facebook curfew post by the county’s communications team garnered more than 2,000 comments.

“This is pure garbage, unconstitutional and totally ineffective,” one commenter said.

“Terrible overreach but guess you are just wearing us down,” read another.

A curfew from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. in response to COVID-19 coronavirus will go into effect in Hillsborough County starting this evening, Monday, April 13. Details: bit.ly/2RAyj2k

Posted by Hillsborough County, Florida Government on Monday, April 13, 2020

Hillsborough is the second county to enact a curfew in the Tampa Bay area. Manatee County declared an 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew April 3, drawing a letter of objection from the local American Civil Liberties Union.

Hillsborough Commissioner Pat Kemp attempted to address concerns over the order during a Wednesday teleconference meeting of the County Commission, but Chairman Les Miller said any discussion would require a supermajority vote. She didn’t get it.

“On Monday night, I had no clue whether I could take a walk at 9:15 pm or not,” Kemp told the board at the end of Wednesday’s call. “I’m very disappointed that all of the commissioners did not support an opportunity for us to get further clarification on the order and hear from our county attorney today."

The penalties for violating the curfew are the same as those in place for the safer–at–home order. It’s a second–degree misdemeanor carrying a fine of up to $500 or up to 60 days in jail.

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Still, establishing an official curfew was more about “messaging” than anything else, Sheriff Chad Chronister said. The Sheriff’s Office has received more than 350 complaints about violations of the county’s social distancing rules, including 38 over Easter weekend.

On Friday, Plant City Police arrested William Burton, 48, on charges of criminal mischief and “violation of public health emergency rules, isolation or quarantine.” His arrest in a failed attempt to break into a Plant City Dollar General is the only one so far arising from the county's emergency orders.

Tampa police have been using helicopters to scour the city for large house parties, like one in East Tampa that drew upwards of 100 people over the weekend, Chief Brian Dugan said. Last weekend, Tampa police received five complaints about large gatherings and the week before, 11.

In their discussions, local leaders pointed to teens as frequent violators of the stay-at-home rules.

But not Kierstin Doll, 16, a Riverview High School junior who has barely set foot outside for weeks. She’s abiding by the rules, she said, but she doesn’t like it — there’s no school, track and field season was cut short, and she’s banished to Zoom or FaceTime if she wants to hang out with friends.

“Personally I do not think the curfew is necessary because the time of day has no effect on the spread of the virus,” Doll told the Tampa Bay Times. “This virus has intruded on everyone’s lives and has negatively affected many households. I feel that this curfew is just another thing this virus has taken away from us.”

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor said Wednesday she favors cutting the curfew two hours, 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. This would give people more time for jogging or dog-walking and would garner her support when the issue comes up a second time at Thursday’s meeting of the county’s Emergency Policy Group.

In hindsight, she said, the group should have waited for the clarity of a draft order before approving the curfew.

Castor said she doesn’t want people to get “wrapped up around the axle” of details like dog-walking. She hopes they’ll focus on the larger picture — the need to continue practicing safe behaviors to slow the spread of the virus.

The big gatherings can largely be solved through public education and appeals to personal responsibility, Castor said.

But what if crowds refuse to comply?

“Then we would do what has been the steps that have been taken in the past. Officers would read over a public address system that individuals need to disperse. And that, you know, if not, then they may face consequences."

She doesn’t see this scenario playing out.

“I can’t stress enough that we should never reach that point. Individuals need to know the severity of it: going out and socializing with your friends can and has resulted in individuals losing their lives."

Still, others see serious problems in the details.

“Illegal to walk my dog at 9:01 p.m.?" former Florida Representative Shawn Harrison wrote on his Twitter account following Monday’s vote. “I’m all for being a responsible citizen but this is overreaching.”

“Absolutely brilliant,” state Rep. Jamie Grant, T-Tampa, wrote in a sarcastic tweet referencing Hulu’s dystopian TV series The Handmaid’s Tale. “I mean, all the epidemiologists will tell you that the virus spreads most aggressively in the dark and specifically, between the hours of 9pm and 5am.”

Tim Curtis, chairman of civic education group the Tampa 912 Project, started a petition on Change.org titled, “Repeal Hillsborough County Curfew," in hopes of persuading the Emergency Policy Group to change its mind at the meeting Thursday. If it doesn’t, he plans to take his petition — with 2,167 signatures as of Wednesday afternoon — to the governor’s office.

“The county government trying to make a solution fit for 1.3, 1.4 million people isn’t very intelligent," Curtis said. "There are people who think they are sufficiently adult and sufficiently intelligent to make decisions for themselves.”

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