Hillsborough Commissioner Stacy White says it’s time for the county government to unmask.
White, at the conclusion of a commission meeting Wednesday, urged County Administrator Bonnie Wise to roll back safety protocols put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Specifically, White said it was unfair to require unvaccinated county employees to show proof of a recent negative test for the coronavirus. He also said it was time to ditch the mandate to wear masks inside the county buildings.
“I’m ready to put a lot of these things in the rearview mirror, including the mask use here in the Board of County Commissioners chambers. I think it’s long past due,” White said.
Some employees, he said, have groused about having to burn paid time off if they are unable to work because they don’t have a recent test result.
“I think it’s wrong that we’re continuing to require our employees to submit to this testing. And to face ramifications if they don’t submit,” White said.
But White also acknowledged the authority to make that decision rested with Wise, and not with the commission. His pitch drew little public support from other board members.
“I understand people are tired of all this, but when you’re doing something that’s working, in actually reducing the incidents in the number of people who are becoming ill ... I think we’re not done with this,” said Commissioner Kimberly Overman. “I think sending the message that we should stop doing what’s working is a dangerous precedent.”
The timing of White’s proposal also drew notice. He made it the same morning as the funeral service for Hillsborough County firefighter Giovanni Ciancio, 55, who died from COVID-19 complications on Oct. 21.
Commission Chairwoman Pat Kemp called the county’s safety rules “a carefulness demonstrated by this board that was well exercised.”
Since Oct. 18, Hillsborough County has required county employees to be vaccinated against the coronavirus or show proof of a recent negative diagnostic test. It offered $500 and two extra days off as incentives for employees to receive the vaccine.
Currently, 3,728 county employees, or 72.2 percent of the workforce, are vaccinated.
The county also requires masks be worn inside county buildings. Members of the public who wish to address the commission in person during its meetings must leave the chambers immediately after speaking.
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For the week ending Oct. 30, the county’s seven-day weekly rate of positive test results was less than 4 percent, according to the state Health Department. Through Oct. 24, 58 percent of the county’s residents, or 875,000 people, had received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.
Wise said her decisions are based on input from the county’s human resources, risk management, legal and other departments that include data on the number of COVID-19 cases in the community and among county employees, vaccination rates and other information.
“We are not going to be masking forever,” Wise said. “We all want to get rid of this. We all want to be safe, and we are getting to the point where we can make some new decisions and we are thoughtfully going through that.”