TAMPA — Saying that the community needs leadership, Mayor Jane Castor announced Thursday, in the midst of a county discussion on a mandatory mask policy, that she would order Tampa residents to wear masks.
“If we wear masks, we can put an end to this spread. That is the bottom line,” Castor said at Hillsborough County’s Emergency Policy Group meeting.
The order will take effect at 5 p.m. Friday and apply to all indoor locations outside the home when residents are unable to maintain a six-foot separation from others, Castor later added during a Facebook Live appearance.
The order would be enforced in the last resort with a civil citation. Children under 2 would be exempt. And the city would provide masks to whoever needs one, she said.
Castor said her city has four of the five zip codes with the highest rates of coronavirus infections per 1,000 residents and she has to take action. Earlier, public health officials had provided data showing that zip codes in downtown, West Tampa and the airport, East Tampa, and the area near the University of South Florida had the highest rate of infections in the county.
“The only way to stop this is to wear a mask. That’s the only way,” Castor said earlier in the meeting. “I, for one, don’t want to wait until we get past the point of no return.”
The mayor announced her decision while the group was discussing a countywide measure similar to what St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman announced Wednesday, when he required businesses to have their employees wear masks.
Shortly afterward, the group voted 5-3 to have county attorneys draft an order that would require county residents to wear masks when conducting business. Store employees would also be required to cover their faces. The proposal would be modeled on St. Petersburg’s order.
The policy group will consider that countywide measure at Monday’s meeting.
Hillsborough County Commissioners Sandy Murman and Kimberly Overman led the effort and voted in favor. They were joined by Commission chair Les Miller, acting Temple Terrace Mayor Andy Ross and Castor.
Plant City Mayor Rick Lott, Hillsborough School Board chairwoman Melissa Snively and Sheriff Chad Chronister voted against.
Lott said the mortality rates were dropping and that masks weren’t needed in rural areas of the county, whose population is 1.4 million. Snively said she opposed a mandate on private businesses.
Chronister said it would be difficult to enforce a misdemeanor or civil citation.
“I’m sure everyone in this group would understand...the confusion that would be caused that now you’re asking law enforcement to enforce mandatory masks,” he said.
Murman and Overman, who has pushed for protections for workers who want to wear masks, said the county couldn’t afford to wait any longer to stem a tide of infections that public health officials said was rising sharply.
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“Tell me what other solution do we have?” Murman said. ”Education? Come on.”
The discussion was punctuated by a dramatic interruption from University of South Florida health professor Thomas Unnasch, who pleaded with the group to act quickly to avoid a million infections in the Tampa Bay area by September with a peak in mid-July.
If they didn’t act, he said: “God knows how many dead bodies (will be) laying in the streets.”
Ross said the professor’s comments were counterproductive.
Castor first pushed for a countywide face covering policy in April. Several other members of the emergency policy group seemed supportive, but an avalanche of resident pushback against the mask proposal and a briefly imposed curfew led to a political retreat. At the group’s April 16 meeting, Castor’s proposal died without a vote. Although she called for a roll call vote, her plan never got a second member’s support.
The next week, Castor struck a deal with retail giants like Target and Publix to provide masks to employees and encourage customers to wear face coverings.
Two months later, despite Gov. Ron DeSantis’ recent vow not to bring back restrictions that would damage the state’s economy, local governments have started to act. This week, Kriseman announced that all business employees must wear masks and his executive order would be enforced. The mayor said his administration is also working on a companion order to require customers to wear masks.
The Hillsborough policy group also received preliminary survey results from a University of South Florida and county survey that showed slightly more than half of the 17,099 respondents had visited a reopened business and a majority expressed concern about lack of social distancing and mask wearing. The survey was conducted between May 27 and June 16.
Overall, 75 percent of respondents said they would continue to wear masks during reopening.
But, officials said, a significantly lower percentage — 42 percent of business owners— said they would require employees to wear masks.
Snively predicted a massive outpouring of opposition similar to the outcry that ended a brief curfew experiment in April.
“I think my email will break all over again,” she said.
But Miller said wearing masks was a small price to pay for curbing the virus.
“What’s the problem with wearing a mask? Somebody please explain it to me,” he said.
Times staff writer Langston Taylor contributed to this story.
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