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Hillsborough rejects expanded face mask rule

The county makes its proposal a recommendation, not a requirement for outdoor service areas of bars and restaurants.
Patrons in outside service areas of bars and restaurants should wear masks, according to a new recommendation from Hillsborough County. Commissioner Kimberly Overman had south to make the recommendation a mandate.. Pictured here are people celebrating New Year's Eve on Seventh Avenue in Ybor City, Tampa.
Patrons in outside service areas of bars and restaurants should wear masks, according to a new recommendation from Hillsborough County. Commissioner Kimberly Overman had south to make the recommendation a mandate.. Pictured here are people celebrating New Year's Eve on Seventh Avenue in Ybor City, Tampa. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Jan. 21, 2021|Updated Jan. 21, 2021

TAMPA — Hillsborough County’s face mask rule won’t be expanded to apply to outdoor service of bars and restaurants, county commissioners decided Thursday.

“Our small business have just been put through too much. As a policy I just think this will be an overkill,” said Commissioner Stacy White.

That decision dashed a proposal by Commissioner Kimberly Overman who has objected that the county’s restrictions on businesses are too loose.

“For too long, we’ve allowed bars and restaurants…. to pack in maskless folks,” Overman said Thursday. A tougher rule, she said, “will not shut businesses down. This will not stop parties for the Super Bowl.”

But a commission majority joined White and wouldn’t concur with Overman.

Commissioner Gwen Myers noted the county code enforcement officers have visited 2,000 businesses to explain the current safety standards.

“It’s just a little bit unfair when they’ve been working with us as a partner,” said Myers.

“I just think applying this outdoors takes this a step too far,” said Commissioner Harry Cohen.

Overman withdrew her motion to expand the mask mandate, but offered a substitute to make her proposed requirement a recommendation from the county.

That motion passed 5-2 with White and Commissioner Ken Hagan dissenting.

The county adopted its face mask mandate last summer in an attempt to control the spread of the coronavirus that causes the COVID-19 respiratory illness. The rule applied to employees and customers unable to abide by social distancing guidelines inside businesses, but included an exemption if people were eating or drinking.

The commission expanded the rule last month to match the requirement in Pinellas County, mandating restaurant patrons be seated in order to remove their masks to eat or drink. The broader ordinance also prohibited eating or standing at bars and congregating on dance floors.

Overman said earlier this month that the rules should apply outside of bars and restaurants, too.

“What we found is that we failed to address it is very difficult to social distance when you’re permitted to take your mask off which is when you’re eating and drinking,” Overman told the rest of the commission Thursday.

The state doesn’t allow local governments to punish individuals accused of violating the face mask rules, but businesses can be held accountable and face potential fines of up to $150 per citation.

Overman’s planned mandate drew objections from members of the public who addressed commissioners Thursday morning.

“We’re adults and we don’t need to be told to wash our hands or cover our mouths when we cough under government threat,’' said Bella Ellwell, a 20-year-old college student.

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“It should be by choice. If people want to wear a mask then they can. If they don’t want to wear a mask then they don’t have to,” said Marissa Lopez.

But, Thomas DeGeorge, owner of the Crowbar in Ybor City, offered a different view. DeGeorge helped form the 700-member Safe & Sound initiative to encourage local businesses to comply with federal COVID-19 safety recommendations.

“We must close any loopholes that are allowing bars and nightclubs to have super spreader events,” he told commissioners.

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