TAMPA — Amid all the social media chatter about Tom Brady’s tequila tolerance and the Lombardi Trophy’s brief airborne journey during the Super Bowl 55 boat parade Wednesday, another meme surfaced.
Did all those unmasked fans packed tightly together form a human petri dish for coronavirus?
Mayor Jane Castor had promised a safe experience for fans eager to cheer their team. So, was it safe?
“I do feel like it was a safe event,” Castor said.
The mayor noted that her outdoor mask order had been communicated constantly by the city since she announced it Jan. 27. More than 10,000 masks were handed out Wednesday as spectators made their way to the Riverwalk and other viewing points. And the event was held outdoors. Since the pandemic began, the city has distributed 500,000 masks.
Yet zero citations were issued Wednesday for people who didn’t wear masks along the parade route. Castor’s executive order contained provisions for fines up to $500 for violations.
And earlier this week, Castor had told reporters that police would deal with those who refused to wear masks.
Some observers speculated the lack of enforcement was because Castor didn’t want to challenge Gov. Ron DeSantis, who issued his own order last year preventing local governments from collecting fines from people who violated pandemic restrictions.
“That wasn’t the issue. What we have done throughout this pandemic is to educate and encourage. And so that’s really what we were focused on — the safety of the community,” Castor said. “But it comes down to that level of personal responsibility as well.”
The city developed the parade safety plan in collaboration with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Hillsborough County. And the NFL signed off on it, Castor said.
From her vantage point in a boat, Castor estimated that “well over half” of the spectators were wearing masks.
“I felt comfortable with the number of individuals that were wearing masks during the parade,” she said.
Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas had announced in January that if the Chiefs won the Super Bowl, his city wouldn’t have a parade. To do so, he told the Kansas City Star at the time, would be “inappropriate and irresponsible.”
Castor didn’t see it that way.
“Kansas City and Tampa are two completely different cities. We have the ability to have this parade on the water with individuals out in boats, and then, clearly, along the the land side, too. And it’s a celebration of a historical win, which I think the Buccaneers and the community deserved. And I feel that we did that in a safe manner,” Castor said when asked if she should have canceled the parade.
Castor acknowledged that other events like Gasparilla, the Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade and Tampa Pride haven’t been allowed to go on, but she said comparing those events to the Super Bowl boat parade was “apples and oranges.”
“Again, we had a route for the parade that was along the water, that allowed individuals and groups to participate out on the waterway on boats and vessels out there, in addition to along the riverfront,” Castor said. “And to reiterate, you had a historic event for our community as a one- time opportunity to celebrate the Buccaneer Super Bowl victory, before all of the the players went on their way. And so I feel that it was a balance between celebrating this historic win and keeping our community safe.”
Tampa political consultant Anthony Pedicini, a Republican, said whatever decision Castor made would have faced criticism. And DeSantis’s order made it effectively impossible to enforce the mayor’s mask order.
“She’s in a Catch-22,” Pedicini said. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the refusal of many people to obey safety guidelines has put politicians in a nearly impossible situation: try to placate one side and you’ll anger the other.
“Every decision government makes is the wrong decision,” Pedicini said. “Or it’s the right decision.”
Tampa City Council member Charlie Miranda, diagnosed with COVID-19 in January, is still recovering. He said watching the maskless crowds Wednesday on television was hard, especially knowing first-hand the severity of the disease.
“It just broke my heart,” said Miranda, who has resumed his duties at City Hall. “I just don’t understand the public anymore — not all of them.”
Miranda, though, said Castor has been a consistent voice for social distancing and mask wearing since the beginning of the pandemic.
“I don’t know what else the administration could have done,” Miranda said.
Public health experts largely agreed, saying Castor was faced with a lot of pressure from a community determined to commemorate the first Super Bowl win in Tampa since 2003.
Michael Teng, a virologist at the University of South Florida, said Castor was in a “tough spot,” trying to balance constituents’ expectations. She made the best decision she could by requiring masks and holding a boat parade, which allowed people to spread out outdoors, he said.
”I wouldn’t have done it, but if you’re going to do it, this was not a terrible option,” Teng said, adding that the mayor faced political and social pressure to throw a celebration for the Buccaneers.
With thousands of visitors and days of festivities, the Super Bowl will likely have a much larger impact on the region’s coronavirus cases than the September celebrations surrounding the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Stanley Cup victory, said Jay Wolfson, a professor of public health at USF.
Wolfson characterized the first part of February with all the events and crowds as “a potential super spreader event.”
”Everybody kind of knows what the rules are, and I think the mayor really did as much as she could to encourage people to do the right thing,” Wolfson said. “But they didn’t.”
Editor’s Note: The original version of this story contained a quote by Mayor Jane Castor that inadvertently omitted the word “personal” when the mayor was speaking about the responsibility of spectators to wear masks at Wednesday’s boat parade.