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  1. Opinion

Tampa mayor shows how not to respond to coronavirus | Editorial

Mayor Jane Castor goes it alone and without specifics on stay at home order. That’s not helpful.
Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor and Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister listen to presentations during the county's emergency policy group meeting on March 12, 2020. [MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times]

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor did exactly the wrong thing Tuesday by going it alone, unilaterally announcing a stay-at-home order without Hillsborough County and without immediate specifics. Regardless of her good intentions, this erodes the necessary spirit of cooperation with county officials -- not to mention the prospect of regional cooperation in a crisis. Practically speaking, it creates an almost impossible situation for residents, law enforcement and workers as they try to navigate the new normal in Florida’s third-largest city.

Castor said Tuesday she would issue a directive ordering residents to stay home in an effort to limit the spread of the coronavirus. With the number of confirmed cases in Florida rising fast, and with Tampa and other communities still lacking testing kits and treatment capacity, she sees the order as the surest way to save lives in the interim. She expects to issue the order Wednesday morning to take effect at midnight.

The Tampa native and former police chief is genuinely motivated by public health. But Castor pitched this idea Monday to the Hillsborough Emergency Policy Group, a board of locally elected officials charged with coordinating a countywide approach to an emergency. Castor’s argument failed to convince most members of that group, and going it alone sets the wrong example for a region that’s inextricably linked.

While the language of the order is not final, draft documents obtained Tuesday indicate that people would still be allowed outside and to take care of essential business, from grocery shopping and visiting the doctor to caring for family members. Businesses allowed to stay open could include hotels, delivery services, banks, plumbers, electricians and hardware stores, along with a host of service industries to help people meet their everyday needs. What exactly is changing from the current situation besides the rhetoric, which is counter productive in a community already on edge?

The mayor’s list is far broader than the 16 core industries the U.S. government has deemed as essential in the current pandemic, such as the health, energy, manufacturing and transportation sectors. What’s more, who is going to determine which activities outside the home are elective? Are police officers going to waste their time pulling people over to give them the third-degree about grandma? What about Tampa residents whose jobs are in Temple Terrace, Plant City or unincorporated Hillsborough County? What about the tens of thousands of residents in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco who cross county lines between work and home every day?

These loopholes beg the question: Who’s really going be staying home? And if a stay-home order doesn’t meaningfully go beyond what we’re already achieving now - with schools, offices and many businesses closed and with people for the large part isolating themselves from others - then why issue a mandatory directive at all? Will this advance public health, create a false sense of security or - worse yet - induce panic? And doesn’t success hinge entirely as it does now on personal responsibility?

County officials have questioned whether the mayor has the authority to act alone; on Tuesday afternoon, County Administrator Mike Merrill issued a directive countermanding Castor’s impending order. But Castor has broad authority as mayor under the revised state of emergency she declared for Tampa on March 16, including the power to prohibit any business activity, to bar travel on the streets and to impose a curfew.

The last thing anyone needs to see now is the mayor and county administrator trooping off with their lawyers to the closed courthouse to litigate a turf dispute.

It’s clear where this is headed, and it isn’t good. The Pinellas County Commission is expected to meet Wednesday to consider a similar stay at home order, and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman appears to have his own order in his back pocket. Tampa Bay has many fiefdoms, but it is one community. The region’s leaders need to get on the same page on stay at home orders. The go-it-alone mentality reflected by Castor’s action Tuesday has hurt this region for decades, and if political leaders cannot build a consensus in this crisis it is difficult to imagine them successfully dealing with other significant regional issues.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news

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