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Final Act: Hillsborough emergency policy groups extends mask order

The seven-day extension of the county's mandatory mask order will likely be the group's final act.
 
The Hillsborough Emergency Policy Group, pictured above during an April virtual meeting, extended the county's mask order for another seven days on Monday.
The Hillsborough Emergency Policy Group, pictured above during an April virtual meeting, extended the county's mask order for another seven days on Monday. [ C.T. BOWEN | Times ]
Published Aug. 3, 2020

TAMPA — Usually, in local government, when people retire, their colleagues and city or county officials say nice things about them.

That kind of happened Monday at what is almost certainly the final gathering of the Hillsborough County Emergency Policy Group, a lightning rod of criticism since its initial meeting on March 12.

Several members praised the group’s ability to work together, although their controversial decisions — including a short-lived curfew, a county safer-at-home order and the mask order, imposed in June — usually ended in split votes along political lines.

So it was at Monday’s meeting when Sheriff Chad Chronister, School Board chairwoman Melissa Snively and Plant City Mayor Rick Lott, all Republicans, voted against a 7-day extension of the mask order. Republican County Commissioner Sandy Murman and Temple Terrace Acting Mayor Andy Ross, who have often sided with the Republicans, backed the mask order again.

County commissioners will likely vote the group out of existence at the commission’s Wednesday meeting.

That would remove a formal role for Tampa in future emergency responses and would strip Mayor Jane Castor of her vote. County Commission Chairman Les Miller and County Commissioner Kimberly Overman usually vote the same way as Castor. All three are Democrats.

Miller said that, if the commission votes to dissolve the group, the county will work to keep the cities of Plant City, Temple Terrace and Tampa informed, along with the sheriff and school board.

Ross said he was disappointed in the move, initiated by Miller, to end what may be the only emergency policy group in the state. Commissioners formed the group in the 1990s to deal with public emergencies like hurricanes. It had never met for as long or as frequently as this year’s group did.

“I feel like we’re being replaced in the fourth quarter here,” Ross said, reminding his colleagues of the tough political decisions they’ve had to make since March. Ross, in particular, has been a swing vote on the mask issue.

Lott said the rest of the nation should imitate the way the group kept its split over masks within a frame of civil discussion.

“I give the group high marks on it,” Lott said.

Castor has said that she thinks Tampa, as the state’s third-largest city and employment hub, needs a formal role in whatever the commission decides to implement for disaster response.

Related: Mayor Jane Castor wants a seat at the table on emergency policy decisions

After Monday’s meeting, Miller told reporters that he hadn’t talked to Castor about what she had in mind, but he didn’t foresee any formal role for the city in the future. Instead, he expects county and city attorneys to arrive at a legal understanding about how Tampa will be involved going forward.

During the meeting, Miller said commissioners, in their new role, would strive to keep cities informed of their work.

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