Hillsborough County’s Emergency Policy Group, comprised of myself and eight other city and county officials, must limit any policy making role because it does not have the authority to determine our community’s path toward recovery.
The group derives its authority from the Florida Constitution and state law. Our county commission also is created by the state Constitution to protect the health, safety and welfare of our residents during declared emergencies. To be plain, the policy group only has the authority granted to it through our county commission.
The policy group typically faces an incoming hurricane, opens shelters, plans evacuations, sets curfews to keep people out of the high winds, and then quickly stands down. COVID-19 is no hurricane. You cannot see it on a radar screen, judge its speed, or know its expected storm surge. It is a health emergency with long-term implications. Each week brings new challenges and new data that have forced the emergency group to change policy. That further confuses 1.4 million Hillsborough residents who are frustrated with how long this has gone on.
Medical professionals are facing unprecedented challenges. Law enforcement officers are protecting public safety in the face of the coronavirus. Businesses need to re-open safely and effectively. These challenges are long term and have become new norms that require long-term economic planning and long-range government deliberation. To prove this point, we must remember the emergency policy group is required to renew its orders every 7 days. Effective government is not built on policies meant to last only one week.
The emergency policy group stood up testing centers, found personal protective equipment, opened isolation centers for patients, coordinated hospital responses, started food programs, enlisted our citizens to embrace social distancing, provided the latest information to our community, and limited our daily work to only essential services. The emergency policy group has saved lives and done its job.
As we look to re-opening our economy and creating a new normal, what the policy group should not do is expand its role to anything outside policy relating to coordinating a response to the pandemic. Testing, treating and tracing should be a priority. Expanding test sites should be a priority. Getting the latest technology and treatments to fight the disease should be a priority. Our regular institutions of government must now plan for our collective future.
My role as the sheriff is to enforce our laws and keep our community safe, emergency or not. This prolonged state of emergency cannot cause an abdication of our local government institutions. A return to normalcy in government will result in better democracy. We must rethink how we govern during a long-term health emergency and not merely default to emergency planning as our path to recovery. We should be proud of how our community responded to flatten the curve, and now our commissions, councils, mayors, judges, and chambers of commerce must act to ensure our successful future. As the law enforcement leader for our county, I pledge to continue my work with these local leaders to keep our community safe and strong.
Chad Chronister is the Hillsborough County sheriff.