Hillsborough scraps curfew and mandatory masks

After days of public confusion and anger, a county board backs off both controversial proposals
Hillsborough County's emergency policy group, shown here at its last in-person meeting on March  12, voted Thursday to kill the curfew they had voted in days earlier.
Hillsborough County's emergency policy group, shown here at its last in-person meeting on March 12, voted Thursday to kill the curfew they had voted in days earlier. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published April 16, 2020|Updated April 16, 2020

TAMPA — Hillsborough County’s Emergency Policy Group voted unanimously Thursday to rescind the countywide curfew.

They also shot down a proposal by Tampa Mayor Jane Castor to require residents to wear masks in public.

The group voted to scrap the 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew that had generated an uproar since it went into effect Monday night. And they didn’t even vote on Castor’s proposal for residents to wear face-coverings in grocery stores, pharmacies and while conducting other essential public tasks.

The move to overturn the curfew started moments after the meeting began.

“I believe we made the wrong decision at our last meeting,” said School Board chairwoman Melissa Snively. “It sent the wrong message to the majority of citizens who are abiding by it.”

Her motion was quickly seconded by Plant City Mayor Rick Lott, who has emerged as an opponent of the county requiring any mandatory measures. The group’s other members quickly followed.

“Our hearts were in the right place,” Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister said of the curfew, which he had voted for on Monday. “This group simply moved too quickly.”

“The curfew is clearly not a tool that law enforcement needs ... it has confused the public,” the sheriff said.

Lott said the county group needed to restore trust among citizens by removing the cloud of the curfew.

County Commission Chairman Les Miller, who led the effort to impose the nightly curfew on Monday, said he “can count votes.”

But he said he was only trying to do the right thing.

“That’s all I was doing was trying to save lives,” Miller said. “I’ve been called some dirty names since I did that. The most difficult was the N-word. And being called a Nazi.”

Later, the group declined to vote on Castor’s motion to issue an order requiring masks. Castor wanted a roll call vote from the group’s eight members, but Commissioner Kimberly Overman withdrew her support so Castor’s motion died.

During the discussion, at least five members opposed a mask or face covering order citing a burden on businesses and residents.

“I think to mandate it will just come across to people in the wrong way,” said Commissioner Sandy Murman, who said masks should remain recommended, not required.

Chronister said requiring masks would strain law enforcement.

Miller, whose curfew effort had been defeated hours earlier, reminded Castor what he had said about knowing how to count votes.

“I don’t count votes, I just do what’s right,” Castor said.

The group’s final meeting of the week capped an extraordinary four days in which an apparent move to issue orders to keep people off the streets at night and with faces covered ended with no mandates at all.

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At Monday’s meeting, the group approved the curfew by a 5-3 vote, stating that they were concerned about large social gatherings that had sprouted up over Easter weekend.

Related: Confusion after curfew vote

Afterward, county and city officials gave conflicting statements about whether activities like dog walking and jogging would be allowed during curfew hours, although they later agreed that such activities were permitted.

But mounting public anger appeared to give some members of the group pause. The sheriff, who is running for reelection, voted in favor of the curfew on Monday. On Wednesday night, Chronister’s campaign polled residents by email on whether or not they supported the curfew. By lunchtime Thursday, more than 33,000 people had responded. Two-thirds supported a curfew, said Anthony Pedicini, Chronister’s campaign consultant.

Castor’s face-covering proposal had appeared headed to certain victory after Monday’s meeting in which several members indicated their support.

That support evaporated in a storm of public criticism over both measures.

Tampa’s mayor took issue with the group’s sentiment to wait and see if a flattening curve of new virus infections would continue before taking more stringent steps.

Castor reminded them of New York City Mayor Bill DiBlasio’s comments that the virus transformed nearly overnight in his city.

“The last thing we should do is wait and see,” Castor said.

In the end, the group decided to do just that.

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