Tampa Bay cities grapple with workers falling victim to coronavirus

Mask policies for city workers have been put in place in Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater.
Published June 23, 2020

The bay area’s three largest cities have reported 71 COVID-19 cases among municipal employees during the pandemic, with the highest numbers occurring among public safety workers.

So far, the coronavirus hasn’t seriously affected services like police, fire, water and wastewater. But some city leaders are worried about the recent spike in infections.

As of Monday, Clearwater reported that 15 of its roughly 1,800 employees tested positive for the coronavirus. City Manager Bill Horne said while the numbers were concerning, contact tracing showed the employees caught the virus outside of the workplace.

The city has required its employees to wear masks since early June. But on Wednesday, Horne said he issued a letter reiterating the requirement because not all workers were complying.

“I am alarmed to be really honest, because I see a lot of people in general not wearing masks and I’ve had to reinforce mask wearing within my own organization,” he said in an interview last week.

In Tampa, 22 city employees have tested positive for coronavirus. In all, 961 workers have either tested positive or been quarantined because of exposure to the virus since March, when the pandemic began locally, according to data compiled Friday.

That’s approximately 22 percent of the city’s workforce of about 4,300.

Most of the workers quarantined — 677 — are in the police and fire departments and come into close, daily contact with the public. Of those, 11 tested positive.

But 110 Parks and Recreation employees have also been quarantined, along with 76 water and wastewater workers. Of those, eight have tested positive.

And last week, Tampa City Council member Orlando Gudes announced he had tested positive. So far, he’s the only elected official in the three cities to have publicly acknowledged contracting COVID-19.

Related: Gudes tests positive for coronavirus

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor ordered mandatory mask wearing for all indoor locations outside the home, which took effect Friday when social distancing couldn’t be maintained.

But city employees have been required to wear masks since March, said spokeswoman Ashley Bauman, adding some exceptions were in place for first responders.

While the pandemic has changed the way the city conducts business that would normally require face-to-face interaction, like meetings and job interviews, city services haven’t been impacted, Bauman said.

“The actual level of service has remained consistent,” she said.

In St. Petersburg, 34 employees have tested positive for the coronavirus since the start of the pandemic — the highest number among Tampa Bay’s three largest cities.

The public works and parks and recreation departments have been hit hardest. Public works employees account for 11 positive cases, and 24 workers were quarantined due to possible virus exposure. Ten parks and recreation employees tested positive, while 38 were quarantined due to exposure.

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The police department, which tested about 200 workers who wanted tests last week, have reported six positive cases since the pandemic began, including one civilian worker and five sworn officers.

St. Petersburg Fire Rescue has two confirmed cases among its ranks, and 19 employees have been quarantined for exposure. It’s unclear if any of those firefighters were on the city’s COVID-19 strike teams, which only responded to suspected coronavirus calls.

The sanitation department has had three positive cases and 10 employees in quarantine. Technology services and codes compliance have each had one positive case and no one else in quarantine.

Mayor Rick Kriseman issued an executive order last week, which took effect Friday, mandating businesses to require employees wear masks. He said he is considering a similar measure for customers.

The city has required city employees who interact with the public to wear masks for some time, said Kriseman spokesman Ben Kirby.

There is no mandate that all city employees must wear masks, Kirby said, but the mayor has told department directors to make a mask decision for their respective workforces. So, for example, the employees at the city’s parking office who sell permits and take ticket payments are masked up. But construction workers may not be wearing masks.

St. Pete has a full- and part-time workforce of about 3500 workers.

Clearwater’s 15 cases include seven from parks and recreation, three from Clearwater police, two in public utilities, two in finance and one engineering employee.

On Thursday, the City Council members discussed their support of an ordinance to mirror Kriseman’s order. But to avoid creating a patchwork of ordinances throughout the area, the council opted to wait as the Pinellas County Commission is expected to vote on a county-wide mask requirement on Tuesday.

“Piecemealing in different municipalities is a nightmare, especially as our beach runs with different cities,” council member Kathleen Beckman said.

Mayor Frank Hibbard on Friday sent a letter to county commission chair Pat Gerard expressing the city’s support of a county-wide order to require all businesses wear face coverings when interacting with the public.

“It is in these times of crisis that we must come together as a community, working with one purpose to serve the best interest of our citizens,” Hibbard said.

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