TAMPA — The mayors of Tampa Bay’s three largest cities and the chairwomen of Pinellas and Hillsborough counties issued a stern message Thursday to business owners who condone violations of coronavirus restrictions: shape up or face penalties.
“There is no issue that is more regional...than COVID-19,” said Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard. “We cannot let our guard down.”
Starting Thursday night, Tampa code enforcement officers will start enforcing the county’s orders on mask use and bans of dance floor crowds, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor said.
Business owners can be fined $500 or be charged with a second-degree misdemeanor for repeat offenders, Castor said. While the leaders said they preferred voluntary compliance (”Nobody wants to fine anyone,” Castor said), they concluded that rogue businesses need to be brought into line.
“The few businesses in the community who aren’t good citizens have to be addressed,” Castor said.
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said it makes it easier for residents on both sides of the bay when the rules are uniform. He thanked the Pinellas and Hillsborough commissioners for strengthening their restrictions.
As for those who say they have a right to go dancing?
“Really? Are we really going to have that discussion... It’s amazing to me,” Kriseman said.
Kriseman said his city has already written 189 citations to business owners.
“Don’t make us do that,” he said. “We want everybody to do the right thing because we care about each other and our communities.”
Clearwater police will be enforcing the Pinellas order and “looking for bad actors,” Hibbard said. Police will penalize repeat offenders, he said.
Pinellas County Commission Chairwoman Pat Gerard said a recent survey by Sheriff Bob Gualtieri showed that 40 percent of bars weren’t following the county order.
“You’re actually hurting your business by not enforcing it,” she said.
Frank Chivas, founder of the Baystar Restaurant Group, which owns 10 restaurants in Tampa Bay, including Island Way Grill and Rumba Island Bar & Grill in Clearwater, said his businesses have been following the rules and he supports the increased enforcement.
“We all need to get on the same page,” Chivas said. “These are our elected officials and we need to support them like they’ve supported us.”
Tiffany Hubert, spokeswoman for 7th & Grove, an Ybor City restaurant, had a similar take. She said the dining room and lounge are by reservation only except for Sunday brunch. She said the restaurant supported the enforcement decision because it would protect everybody.
“They’re our staff, our family, our loved ones,” she said.
Hillsborough County Commission Chairwoman Pat Kemp said her colleagues recently strengthened Hillsborough’s order. She urged residents to use common sense and avoid dangerous situations.
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“We need to do everything we can not to congregate in large crowds inside for more than 15 minutes,” Kemp said. “We have to to exercise everything we can do.”
Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order in September 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.
On Thursday, Castor, who organized the virtual news conference, said that the local orders are legally solid and haven’t been challenged.
DeSantis’ office didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The bay area leaders emphasized that the restrictions wouldn’t last forever as widespread vaccinations will eventually end the pandemic. As for motivation to obey restrictions? What about the country’s biggest sporting event coming to Tampa in February.
“We have the Super Bowl coming up, We really want to be the area with the lowest rates in Florida,” Hibbard said.
Pinellas and Hillsborough counties orders grew more alike after Hillsborough expanded its local order Wednesday. They both require masks to be worn indoors while patronizing businesses. They allow patrons to remove masks only when seated. And they ban congregating on dance floors. Repeat offenders can be fined up to $500.
Each county will enforce its own order. But the unified front is regional, Castor said.
“COVID-19 doesn’t know where the city ends and the county begins,” she said.
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