Hillsborough Emergency Policy Group tackles how to reopen

Public speakers: 'We’re tired of sitting around. '
Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill and County Commission Chairman Les Miller at the last in-person county Emergency Policy Group meeting on March 12, 2020.
Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill and County Commission Chairman Les Miller at the last in-person county Emergency Policy Group meeting on March 12, 2020. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published April 23, 2020|Updated April 24, 2020

TAMPA — Hillsborough’s elected leaders are moving from talking about closures due to the coronavirus to discussing openings.

But, as Plant City Mayor Rick Lott said at Thursday’s Emergency Policy Group meeting: “The devil is in the details.”

After a presentation from public health officials showing a slow in the coronavirus spread in the county, several members indicated that they would like to move more quickly toward at least a partial reopening of the county’s economy.

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor said that although the county has only tested about 1 percent of its 1.4 million residents, the economic damage was plain.

“I don’t feel that we have the ability to wait two more weeks to open up some of our businesses,” she said.

Her sentiments were applauded by Lott, who said the group needed to weigh the economic impacts of the widespread closures over the last month.

Lott said he hoped the group wouldn’t put too many restrictions on hotels, restaurants and other businesses when they reopen. Instead, he said, market pressures would determine how things should proceed.

A business that wasn’t keeping its premises clean and disinfected wouldn’t attract customers, he said.

“I hope we allow our markets to react fast and have faith people are going to do the right thing,” Lott said.

County Administrator Mike Merrill reminded group members that Gov. Ron DeSantis’ statewide order determined how the county would reopen. The state order supersedes the county’s safer-at-home order.

School Board chairwoman Melissa Snively said the county should be prepared to act quickly if the governor decides to amend or rescind his order after his task force delivers its report Friday.

That prompted discussion about whether the county should revoke its safer-at-home order, put in place before DeSantis’ order was issued April 1.

County Commissioner Les Miller, the group’s chairman, said the county should wait until its Monday meeting to make any decision since DeSantis was likely to signal his intentions in the statewide order Friday.

Revoking the county order would just confuse county residents over the weekend, Miller said.

The group also decided to wait until Monday for any discussion on whether to reopen the county’s parks and beaches. County beaches and parks were closed by an executive action by Merrill. Castor closed the city’s parks and beaches with her own executive order.

At the meeting’s outset, the group received good news about the spread of the virus in the county.

Dr. Douglas Holt, the county’s director of public health, said the spread of the virus has slowed, flattening the curve. More than 16,000 tests results have been collected.

Merrill later told reporters the county had ordered 45,000 rapid testing kits and said he hoped they will be delivered by May 1. He said he appealed directly to the manufacturer, Abbott Laboratories, but was told previous supplies were earmarked for hospitals, health care centers and state emergency managers. The county also began its mobile testing service Thursday and had 12 appointments scheduled, said Hillsborough County Fire Chief Dennis Jones. This week, the county also opened three additional testing locations in East Tampa, Ruskin and Plant City.

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The county has averaged nine new cases a day for the last several days, Holt said.

On Thursday, 35 people were hospitalized in Hillsborough with COVID-19, down from 42 patients on Monday. Still, Holt said, he’d like to see at least 2 percent of the county’s residents tested to avoid a resurgence.

“We’re really headed in the right direction because of all the actions we’ve taken,” said County Commissioner Sandy Murman.

Dr. Eric Eisenberg, dean of the University of South Florida’s School of Arts & Sciences, said reopening the county should be accompanied by a widespread campaign of public engagement. And he said people should think about a return to normal activities like a dial that will be turned up or down depending on the spread of the disease.

“There is no decision you can make about this that will be foolproof," Eisenberg said.

Other public health officials echoed that message: a reopening will be gradual and depends on public behavior.

“Are they engaged with us and are they willing to remain receptive to guidance we have provided and will continue to provide? Some things will have to remain in place,’’ said Dr. Donna Petersen, dean of USF’s School of Public Health.

That means, she said, continued social distancing and potentially wearing face coverings in public and “adapting to new ways of working, Adapting to new ways of how we interact with businesses …. it means staying home if we’re sick.’’

Dr. Marissa Levine, professor at USF School of Public Health, said the decision-making goes beyond the county’s borders.

“It’s going to require a regional effort in addition to what you’re doing here in Hillsborough,” she said, including a coordinated, unified regional message to the public.

At the outset of Thursday’s meeting, three members of the public let the group know they want some of the stay-at-home restrictions lifted.

“We are responsible people. We do not want government handouts. We’re tired of sitting around,’’ said KrisAnne Hall. “We will do what is necessary to keep ourselves and our families safe.’’

David Larson, who described himself as a small-business owner and a father of five, echoed Hall’s sentiment: "We need a quick path to open up.’’

“There are people (businesses) who are boarding up who aren’t going to be able to open again,’’ he said.

Attorney Ryan Valdes wasn’t willing to go that far, but he urged the county to ease restrictions on parks and trails.

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