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Hillsborough test demand strains county system

The county has test sites operating six days a week and plans to add up to 5,000 tests weekly at Raymond James Stadium

TAMPA — A high demand for testing has strained county resources, said Hillsborough County’s emergency management director Monday.

Tim Dudley told the county’s Emergency Policy Group that “a tremendous demand” for tests has put to the test the number of volunteers and personal protective equipment available, but the county is anticipating some relief when the state takes over the Raymond James testing site Tuesday.

“It’s been a fine balancing act to keep our our testing machine going,” Dudley said. “You’re going to be limited by test kits or PPE one way or the other.”

More than a thousand walk-up appointments have also been a challenge, Dudley said. Last week, the county conducted 5,782 tests last week.

Dudley encouraged residents to schedule appointments to help smooth the process, which has resulted in long waits. The state’s participation at Raymond James will also increase testing capacity to 1,000 tests a day at that popular site, he said.

The county has at least one site open six days a week, Dudley said.

School Board member Melissa Snively said she was concerned about the wait time for tests. She said a constituent reported to her on Saturday that she couldn’t get an appointment until July 9.

“The demand has been tremendous,‘' said Dudley, who said appointments are projected out to tie into availability of supplies and test kits.

Last week, the county sites conducted 5,782 tests and already more than 3,000 have been scheduled this week for Raymond James Stadium and approximately 900 more each at Plant City, South Shore and the Lee Davis Community Center in Tampa.

“Our testing capacity, demand exceeds available supply but I expect that to change (Tuesday when the Raymond James Stadium site adds capacity), said Dr. Douglas Holt, director of the state Health Department for Hillsborough County.

Nearly 20 percent of the test results received have been positive for the coronavirus, according to the most recent seven-day average, said Kevin Wagner, the principle business analyst, for the county’s Department of Health Care Services.

Group members also changed the face mask mandate approved a week ago.

The Emergency Policy Group unanimously supported a motion from Hillsborough Commissioner Sandy Murman to exempt children younger than 18 who participate in organized youth activities like sports leagues, summer camps and day care.. The members also agreed to a motion from Acting Temple Terrace Mayor Andy Ross to raise the applicable age for the mask requirement 2 years old to age 8.

The larger public debate, however, surrounded the provision putting enforcement responsibilities on business owners who must ensure customers wear facial coverings. Business owners contacted the Emergency Policy Group and county commissioners last week to complain about the enforcement rule, which already has spurred a legal challenge.

The group had a prolonged discussion about weakening the week-old order and eventually asked County Attorney Christine Beck to tweak its emergency order to soften the requirement putting the enforcement onus on business owners. It will be reconsidered July 6. The effort didn’t sit well with all group members.

“A glorified recommendation. That’s what we’re talking about.‘' said Commission Chairman Les Miller Jr., also chairman of the county’s Emergency Policy Group.

Ross said the revised provisions should require businesses to mandate employees wear masks, post signs telling customers to do likewise and make announcements via a public address system - if possible - about the requirements. If businesses make those efforts at reasonable enforcement, they shouldn’t face criminal penalties, he said.

The legal challenge comes from Tampa attorney Patrick Leduc who is seeking a court order voiding the emergency order on behalf of his clients, the owners of Little Habana Cafe in Riverview, Panini’s Bar & Grill in Lutz and Family Focus Insurance Solutions, Tampa.

“Executive orders not supported by legislative vote, especially those that impose civil penalties, must be clearly written and respectful of constitutional due process, ‘' the suit states. “Yet defendant creates an order that compels only business owners/mangers to enforce, enlisting them as state actors without their consents, and subjects them to criminal sanctions for their failure to adhere to the policy decisions of government officials.‘'

Related: Instead of hurricanes, Hillsborough's Emergency Policy Group faces a different storm

Leduc previously wrote a legal challenge, but never filed it, against an emergency order setting a countywide curfew. The Emergency Policy Group rescinded the curfew the same week it adopted it. The latest legal challenge, served on the county last week, seeks a temporary restraining order or an injunction barring enforcement of the face mask order. It names Hillsborough County and the Hillsborough Sheriff’s Office as defendants.

The emergency order, which went into effect June 24, requires people to wear face masks inside of businesses in which social distancing is not possible. Business owners are to deny entrance to people not complying or to remove customers who do not comply once inside the establishment, the order states.

At the outset of the meeting, members of the public telephoned the committee to talk about the mask rule.

Paul Thompson said raising the age of children is imperative.

“These school-age kids shouldn’t be forced to wear masks,‘' he said. “My son is 4 and it’s very very challenging to get him to wear a mask.‘'

Business owner Leslie Forrester said the mask mandate should be strengthened and other safeguards including scaled back operations at restaurants, retail and personal services like massage therapists and hair salons should be reinstated.

“These are not essential and shouldn’t be opened during a spreading, spiking pandemic,‘' she said.

Attorney KrisAnne Hall, however, accused the committee of “responding irrationally'' to positive test results.

The order, however, does has its fans, too.

“Continuing to strongly encourage social distancing together with a face covering mandate is the best strategy we have, until we develop a vaccine to prevent the disease or better therapeutic interventions when disease occurs,‘' said Donna J. Petersen, dean of the University of South Florida’s College of Public Health.

Petersen’s comments were contained in a June 26 letter to Hillsborough Commissioner Kimberly Overman, a member of the Emergency Policy Group.

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