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Hillsborough approves mask order for businesses

The county's emergency policy group, after hours of discussion, approves measure in 5-3 vote.

TAMPA — Starting Wednesday at 5 p.m., all indoor business operators will be required to enforce a mandatory mask order in Hillsborough County.

The order approved by the Hillsborough County Emergency Policy Group in a 5-3 vote carries a stick. Business operators who don’t comply could be charged with a second-degree misdemeanor, with a penalty of up to 60 days in jail and/or six months probation and a $500 fine.

Customers can’t be penalized. That change to a draft order came after Temple Terrace acting Mayor Andy Ross, a former sheriff’s deputy, said police have enough to deal with right now.

“I cannot charge our police with being the mask police,” he said.

But an effort to remove any penalty failed after County Commission Chairman Les Miller gave an emotional speech, saying removing an enforcement mechanism would make the order voluntary — and meaningless.

“I cannot see us sitting here and making another strong recommendation,” Miller said.

After nearly two hours of discussion, County Commissioners Les Miller, Sandy Murman and Kimberly Overman, joined by Tampa Mayor Jane Castor and Ross, voted for the measure.

Sheriff Chad Chronister, School Board chairwoman Melissa Snively and Plant City Mayor Rick Lott voted against.

Hillsborough now joins Tampa and St. Petersburg in approving mandatory mask orders in the past week.

The order requires businesses to “ensure compliance” and “enforce the provisions” by denying admittance to any indoor location to people who aren’t wearing masks (and aren’t exempted by age, disability or other condition) or removing people from the business who aren’t following the mandate.

And the policy group must vote to renew the order each week.

The order only applies to those people who are not following social distancing protocol of keeping six feet apart from others.

The draft county order lists the same exemptions as Tampa’s, including children under 2 years of age and those with medical conditions, among other categories.

Related: Tampa's mask order: What you need to know

A few speakers called in to the virtual meeting ahead of the mask vote. Janet Winn, who identified herself as being with the Young Republicans of Tampa Bay, called last week’s mask order in Tampa “unconstitutional.”

“Please stop violating our rights,” she said.

But a parade of public health officials and doctors told the group members that masks were a proven method of reducing the pandemic’s spread.

The evidence they provided, said Murman, was “overwhelming.”

Not everyone agreed.

Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister said he believes wearing facial coverings is “an individual responsibility” and the order would overburden law enforcement.

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor disputed that assessment, saying the city had received just a handful of complaints since her order went into effect on Friday. Monday’s vote vindicated Castor, who had pushed for a countywide mask order in April only to see her measure fail to come to a vote.

Leading up to the discussion, public health officials presented a picture of a steadily worsening pandemic in Florida’s fourth-largest county.

“We need to act now,” John Couris, CEO of Tampa General Hospital, told the group Monday. “Masks are critically important.”

Dr. Seetha Lakshmi, associate epidemiologist at Tampa General Hospital, brought slides to show to the group that included pictures of Covid-19 patients who have died, one that morning.

“This is a battlefield,” she told the group. “This is what the soldiers on the front line are seeing, and we wanted you to see this.”

Lakshmi showed data indicating mandatory mask orders reduce daily spread by as much as 2 percent within three weeks of being declared.

Other data showed a community spread in Hillsborough that isn’t improving, including a steady increase in hospitalizations over the past two weeks, with an average of 27 per day being reported by area hospitals. And the COVID-19 positivity rate has more than doubled in recent weeks, to 11. 1 percent.

The state Department of Health’s county director, Dr. Douglas Holt, said the county is “seeing quite a bit of a surge in what is termed community-based transmission.”

But, so far, hospitals remain unstressed and death rates remain unchanged, Holt said.

Despite the hopes that the mask order would help, it allows people to be exempt from the order if they have a preexisting medical condition that would be worsened by a mask. They would not be required to show documentation, said County Attorney Christine Beck.

That is a gaping loophole, said Snively.

“Anyone who doesn’t want to wear a mask can say I have a condition that exempts me from wearing a mask,” she said.

After the meeting, Miller said it was frustrating that partisan politics had come into play in the mask issue.

“That should not be what’s happening,” he said. “This is about lives. And spreading this disease from one person to another.”

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