Law enforcement officers from multiple agencies will deploy across Pinellas County on Friday reminding business owners of their obligation to enforce the county ordinance requiring patrons to social distance from strangers and wear masks while not eating and drinking.
The wake-up call comes as coronavirus case loads and deaths have spiked over the past month, and officers have witnessed blatant violations of the mandate in bars and restaurants, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Guatieri announced at a press conference on Thursday with county administrator Barry Burton.
Gualtieri said misunderstanding has spread following Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Sept. 25 lifting of coronavirus-related restrictions on business capacity and operations. The order did not repeal local mask mandates but it removed municipalities’ ability to impose fines on individual violators.
It did not, however, eliminate the ability to penalize businesses that fail to enforce the ordinance in their establishments.
Gualtieri said he wants to continue enforcing the mandate through education and voluntary compliance, as has primarily been done since the county adopted it on June 23. But if businesses continue to defy the law, they could face civil penalties, a court injunction or a criminal charge, Gualtieri said.
“I don’t want to go there, I really hope we don’t even have to have any more discussion about that,” Gualteri said. “Just, everybody do the right thing, get behind this and help all of us get this to where it needs to be.”
On Nov. 29, Pinellas County had 234 new coronavirus infections compared to 74 on Oct. 30, Burton said. The percent of people testing positive on Nov. 29 was 8.4 percent, double the rate from a month earlier.
Burton noted the higher seven-day averages being recorded in Pasco and Hillsborough counties as well and the threat that poses with the interconnectedness of the region.
“Our numbers as a region are too high, and we need to do what we can to try to minimize the social spread, community spread of coronavirus,” said Burton, who was joined by Pinellas County Commission Chair Pat Gerard, Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman.
Testing sites are being maxed out and having to shut down early, an indicator that people are concerned, Burton said.
While hospital capacities are stable, Burton said the fact that 57 coronavirus patients were on ventilators in Pinellas on Nov. 29, 25 more than a month earlier, should be concerning. And over the past four weeks, the death toll has ranged from 13 to 20 per week.
“Is there capacity, yes, but we’re seeing the uptick so the story is very clear that unless we take additional steps what’s going to occur,” Burton said.
Gualteri said officers visited about 2,800 bars and restaurants between Nov. 13 and Nov 15 and documented widespread violations. The majority of violators were employees, who are required by ordinance to wear a mask even while serving outdoors.
The ordinance requires patrons to stay six feet away from people who are not in their party and to not gather in groups larger than 10. Gualtieri showed photos of people in bars and restaurants from Dunedin to St. Petersburg not social distancing, being packed around bars and dance floors, and failing to wear masks.
The ordinance requires patrons to wear a mask in indoor public places, except while eating and drinking. It also requires people to be seated in order to be served.
Officers will be posting signs in bars and restaurants that list the social distancing and mask wearing rules.
“Our county ordinance remains in place, it hasn’t changed,” Burton said. “What has changed is we’ve gotten lax. We’ve taken our foot off the gas and we see a lot more patterns of people going back to normal patterns, which we understand people are tired of and everybody is wanting to get back to normal but we have a little ways to go.”
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