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Hillsborough changes its face-mask rule

The Emergency Policy Group removes criminal penalties that drew objections from business owners.

TAMPA — Hillsborough County emergency leaders agreed Monday to rewrite its two-week-old face mask requirement to ease concerns from business owners.

The change removes criminal sanctions, which drew objections from the business community, and instead says civil citations could be issued to business owners who don’t make a reasonable effort to enforce the rules.

The order defines reasonable effort as businesses that place signs at entrances, make public address announcements and ask customers to comply. The rule asks people to cover their faces inside buildings if they are unable to maintain social distancing. Individuals who fail to comply with the businesses’ request could be subject to a civil citation with a fine of up to $150.

This is the flyer that will be available to business owners to post in their locations as part of the compliance with face-covering requirement from the Hillsborough Emergency Policy Group. [ HIllsborough County ]

Supporting the order were Hillsborough County Commission Chairman Les Miller Jr. and commissioners Kimberly Overman and Sandy Murman, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor and Temple Terrace Acting Mayor Andy Ross.

Voting “no'' were Sheriff Chad Chronister, Plant City Commissioner Nate Kilton and School Board member Melissa Snively.

“The data right now is very compelling that we have to do something to control this virus,‘' Murman said after the vote.

The board, on a 5-3 vote, also approved another amendment spelling out that the emergency order is not intended to conflict with state law covering concealed weapon permit holders. Miller, Overman and Castor dissented.

Related: County clarifies concealed weapon permit holders and mask order

As of June 30, there were 112,783 concealed weapons permit holders in Hillsborough County, according to the state. After the meeting, Miller said he almost voted against the emergency order after the amendment passed.

“It crossed my mind. But you don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,” Miller said.

He said he was concerned the group would keep watering down the mask order.

”What are we going to add next week? We’re going to end up with a glorified recommendation,” he said.

The panel originally adopted the face-mask requirement June 22 and it went into effect two days later. Business owners are to deny entrance to people not complying or to remove customers who do not comply once inside the establishment, the order stated.

But business owners complained it unfairly put enforcement responsibilities on them and could potentially put employees in harm’s way. The order also faces a legal challenge from Tampa attorney Patrick Leduc, who is seeking a court order voiding the rule 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.

Statistics shared with the group Monday showed an average of 624 daily cases over the seven days ending July 4th, a 181 percent increase over the prior week. The average positive test rate remained at 20 percent over the past 14 days. Hospital admissions related to COVID-19 actually declined 10 percent, to an average of 56 per day compared to the previous week. But the coronavius accounts for 361 intensive care unit patients.

Nearly 1 percent of the county population has tested positive, with 80 percent of the cases coming in the month of June, said Dr. Douglas Holt, director of the state Health Department for Hillsborough County.

Holt noted some good news: death rates have remained unchanged over the past seven days, and emergency room visits have declined from 1,072 to 954 during the past week.

Over the last three days, Holt noted, new cases have declined.

“I hope this is a long-term trend, but we shall see,” Holt said.

But the county’s top public health official remained cautious, noting that 88 percent of the county’s intensive care beds are filled, a 7 percent increase from last week.

“This is something we’re keeping a very close watch on,” Holt said, adding that hospitals do have the capacity to expand their intensive care units.

Emergency room physician Dr. Jason Wilson said he observed a troubling trend over his past four work shifts: 30 percent of the non-COVID-19 patients coming to the emergency room with heart or other health issues also have tested positive for the cornonavirus.

Those being admitted are the sickest patients, requiring oxygen or intensive care, said Wilson and Dr. Peter Chang, vice president of care transitions and chief medical informatics officer at Tampa General Hospital.

“If anything, we are underestimating the number of sick people by those admission numbers,‘' said Wilson.

Chronister asked Chang and Wilson why the county isn’t seeing a decline in positive in the two weeks since the mask order was announced.

Slowing the spread can take up to three weeks, and anecdotal evidence shows that many people still aren’t practicing safe social distancing and continue to participate in high-risk activities, the doctors said.

“It’s a little too early to see this,” Chang said, of a significant decline in new cases.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to correct information discussed at Monday’s Hillsborough County Emergency Policy Group meeting. At the time, the policy group members did not know there is no law barring concealed weapons permit holders from wearing a mask.

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