ST. PETERSBURG — Citing the recent spike in COVID-19 cases locally and statewide, Mayor Rick Kriseman on Monday signed a mandatory mask order, requiring all patrons to wear a mask inside enclosed businesses.
The order went into effect at 5 p.m. on Tuesday.
“Wearing a mask and social distancing are really the last two tools that we have right now to flatten the curve without shutting down our entire economy,” Kriseman said Tuesday during his weekly Facebook Live appearance about the city’s response to the coronavirus. “These are far better alternatives than shutting down.”
Monday’s order came one day before before the Pinellas County Commission was set to consider three mask order variations during its Tuesday meeting. If the Commission passes a countywide order, Kriseman’s order could be rendered moot. If the County Commission chooses not to pass a mask order, or passes an order with different restrictions, then a patchwork of rules could exist within the county, something Kriseman has said he wants to avoid.
The mayor on Tuesday cited the recent uptick in percent positive cases within Pinellas County. The two week rolling average of positive cases as a percentage of tests in Pinellas County is higher than 7 percent. That number over a previous seven-week period was as low as 1.4 percent, he said, and is higher than the 5 percent benchmark that public health officials have set.
“So obviously, we have a lot of work to do just to get to where we need to be,” he said.
Although the order goes into effect Tuesday, Kriseman said enforcement will begin over the weekend, giving people time to acquire masks and adjust. Violation of the order is considered a municipal ordinance violation, which carries a penalty of up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine.
Customers will be liable if they don’t wear a mask, and businesses will be liable if their employees don’t, the mayor said. He said he wants businesses to treat masks like shirts and shoes — requirements for service — and said he didn’t want business owners or employees getting into confrontations with uncooperative customers. Instead, the mayor says, contact the police.
“If we do this right, this will be a short term inconvenience,” Kriseman said.
St. Petersburg’s order has some exemptions built in, namely while people are eating, drinking, exercising, or in a place where there are less than 10 people.
Kriseman’s Monday mask rule was the latest in a flurry of mask orders that have swept the Tampa Bay area.
The mayor alluded to his latest order last week, when he signed an order requiring employees who worked in public areas of businesses to wear masks, which went into effect Friday. At the time, Kriseman said a broader order affecting employees and customers could come, if he deemed it necessary.
On Monday, Hillsborough County’s Emergency Policy Group — eight elected city, county and school officials — passed a mask order, saying business operators must enforce the new rule.
Pinellas County could be the next municipality to pass an order. Commissioners on Tuesday are set to weigh three different approaches to masks. One proposal, the broadest, would require all people to wear a face covering while in any indoor establishment within Pinellas County. Another would require all people to wear face coverings in grocery stores, drug stores, doctor offices and hospitals. The third version would require masks for all indoor areas where customers interact with the public.
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Why didn’t Kriseman wait 24 hours to see what commissioners would do?
“He was ready to sign the order and wanted to ensure that the policy goes into effect tomorrow,” said Kriseman spokesman Ben Kirby on Monday. “He didn’t want to presume the outcome of the county meeting.”
In response to a question about why Kriseman chose to implement the order now, and not during the first wave of the virus, Kriseman said St. Petersburg was a leader.
“I think that St. Petersburg and some cities in the Florida Keys, we may have been the first two, or certainly we were two of the first leaders to put a policy like this in place,” he said.
The mayor’s office has denied that Kriseman signed the order, which could be rendered moot by county action before it even takes effect or is enforced, for the publicity.
“I don’t lend any credence to that question,” Kriseman spokesman Ben Kirby said on Monday night. “He signed it for the safety of his constituents and the residents of the city.”
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