Hillsborough County okays tougher face mask rule

On a pair of 5-2 votes, commissioners prohibit standing at bars to eat or drink or gathering on dance floors.
Michelle Ingram, 52, distributes face masks to a driver in June. Hillsborough commissioners approved a broader face mask mandate Wednesday.
Michelle Ingram, 52, distributes face masks to a driver in June. Hillsborough commissioners approved a broader face mask mandate Wednesday. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published Dec. 16, 2020|Updated Dec. 16, 2020

TAMPA — Hillsborough County now prohibits people from standing at bars to eat and drink or from gathering on the dance floor.

The county commission, on a 5-2 vote Wednesday, agreed to expand its face mask mandate to try to help contain the spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

The change strengthens the mask requirement that has been in place since June. Currently, people inside businesses must wear facial coverings when they are unable to practice social distancing. An exemption is granted if people are eating or drinking.

“We’ve had less than wonderful compliance in that area,” said Commissioner Kimberly Overman, who advocated the broader mandate.

The approved change, effective immediately, says people must be seated while eating or drinking to avoid the mask requirement. That rule already is included in Pinellas County’s face mask order.

Related: Hillsborough commissioner wants expanded face mask rule

Commissioners Ken Hagan and Stacy White dissented. White said the public health benefits of getting people back to work or seeing loved ones hadn’t been considered.

In a separate vote, commissioners also agreed that congregating areas won’t be allowed in nightclubs. The rule bars people from gathering on dance floors. That, too, passed on the same 5-2 vote.

Earlier in the meeting, Alexander Agnelli of Ybor City told the commission he visited International Plaza, Costco and a gym over the weekend and said they “were more crowded than any dance floor in Ybor on a Saturday night” with few people practicing social distancing.

“The board shouldn’t be able to pick and choose which (businesses) receive the restrictions and which don’t,” he said.

Agnelli also suggested banning dance floors could adversely affect nightclubs catering to LGBTQ+ patrons.

“This is not to shut businesses down, but to allow businesses to stay open safely,” Overman said later.

In September, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed an executive order allowing bars and restaurants to operate at greater capacities while removing local governments’ ability to enforce their mask requirements on individuals. The order, however, did not exempt businesses and Hillsborough’s ordinance says businesses must make a reasonable attempt to enforce the local order.

Hillsborough County code enforcement officers visited more than 300 businesses Monday and Tuesday to remind the owners and managers of the county ordinance. Assistant County Administrator Dexter Barge said some business representatives indicated they were not familiar with the county ordinance.

Commissioner Harry Cohen said the county should take additional steps to help educate the public.

“None of this is a panacea. None of this is going to solve the problem overnight,” said Cohen.

The votes came after Dr. Douglas Holt, director of the state Health Department in Hillsborough County, repeated for commissioners the projections shared two weeks ago by Dr. Edwin Michael, a University of South Florida College of Public Health professor and an epidemiologist who studies the spread of global infectious diseases.

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Michael warned of a looming exponential climb in cases that could overwhelm Tampa Bay area hospitals with the surge expected to peak in late January through February.

In Hillsborough County, more than 66,000 residents have been infected with the coronavirus and there have been more than 1,000 deaths. The caseload is up 44 percent over the past two weeks and the 14-day rate of positive test results is 8.61 percent.

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