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Hillsborough commission declines emergency meeting, but mask order remains

Commission Chairman Les Miller Jr. has authority to extend emergency rule.

TAMPA — Hillsborough County commissioners won’t meet Thursday to vote on extending the county’s emergency order dealing with the cornavirus pandemic.

But that doesn’t mean the order — and the county’s face-mask requirement it contains — is expiring. Commission Chairman Les Miller Jr. has the authority to extend both, absent a commission vote, and said in a Wednesday evening letter to commissioners that he planned to do just that.

"The mask mandate, the social distancing, the hand washing and the mandatory mask inside any business is still in place. That’s not going away,'' said Commissioner Kimberly Overman.

The commission, which assumed full responsibility for managing the county’s coronavirus response in August, had met via teleconference each Thursday to vote on extending the county’s emergency order. That order contains the language requiring people to wear masks inside businesses if social distancing isn’t possible. Last week, Gov. Ron DeSantis' issued an executive order that, among other things, precludes local governments from assessing penalties to people who forgo masks.

Miller cancelled the commission meeting because the county was unable to get clarity from DeSantis’ office on whether it needed a four-commissioner quorum to meet in person, Overman said. The commission previously sent DeSantis a letter asking him to extend his order allowing for virtual government meetings beyond Oct. 1.

Miller, in his letter to commissioners, said County Administrator Bonnie Wise told him “it will be challenging to coordinate the logistics necessary to prepare an in-person public meeting space fulfilling appropriate safety and security protocols between now and our special meeting scheduled for this Thursday, Oct. 1.”

Even though the governor’s phase 3 order allowed restaurants and bars to operate at greater capacities, Overman said the county still needed to do "what is most appropriate and prudent to make sure government officials are protected from COVID.''

The county commission, advisory boards, Metropolitan Planning Organization, Tourist Development Council and other boards have met virtually since the spring. The county’s land-use hearings are hybrid meetings with staff and the public gathering in the Robert Saunders Library on N Nebraska Ave, but commissioners tuning in virtually.

Overman is one of the leading proponents of the county’s face covering requirement and at one time had suggested setting even stricter rules to follow a July recommendation from the state’s surgeon general to limit crowd gatherings to no more than 10 people.

Miller also has advocated for the face mask requirement and other protections, noting that he is a three-time cancer survivor, has one kidney, and a compromised immune system.

"Just because the governor changed the rules, doesn’t mean the precautions that are necessary to keep people safe went away.'' said Overman.

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