Pinellas and Hillsborough counties took their cues from the governor this week and are set to partially re-open by Monday. They need three essentials in place - expanded testing, a managed roll-out and close support from the state - to protect public health as government engineers a gradual reawakening of the economy. All three are vital to avoiding a major resurgence of the coronavirus, and making this work will require patience from government, law enforcement and the public.
Pinellas took the lead Tuesday by voting to re-open the county’s 35 miles of beaches. Sheriff Bob Gualtieri has promised a large security presence for Monday’s opening to ensure that visitors comply with rules to stay 6 feet from one another and not congregate in groups of more than 10 people. Hillsborough announced Thursday that it would reopen most of its nature preserves on Saturday, and additional parks and trails on Monday, when state parks also will re-open. Both counties also have rescinded their stay-at-home orders effective Monday, to coincide with Gov. Ron DeSantis’ loosening of restrictions that allow for limited operations at restaurants, retail shops and other select venues.
Local officials generally agree with DeSantis’ phased reopening, although they are understandably frustrated by the lack of detail in the governor’s latest executive order and his administration’s unwillingness to provide clarity. But everyone acknowledges the success of this new phase hinges on three essentials:
Expanded testing. Health experts say that testing in the Tampa Bay area needs to double to provide a reliable picture of where infections are occurring. Pinellas and Hillsborough are testing only about 1.4 percent of their populations, and that rate is far lower in Pasco and Manatee counties . Hillsborough remains ahead of Pinellas in providing testing for everyone and serving hard-to-reach residents, but Pinellas officials say more supplies and sites are on the way. A symptom-based surveillance program launched by the University of South Florida will help detect potential hot spots in Pinellas and Hillsborough. The testing should be uniform across the region, and more consistent results are needed to plan next steps.
Managing the re-opening. Pinellas and Hillsborough are largely on the same page as the governor, but the governor’s guidelines are vague or silent about many of the details, leaving enforcement and specific questions to local governments to sort out. "You can’t be clear with mud,'' Gualtieri told county commissioners Friday, "and that is what they gave us.'' The general approach: If DeSantis’ order doesn’t keep a business closed (such as bars, barbers and fitness centers), it can open with social distancing and capacity restrictions.
Increasing state support. DeSantis sent an encouraging sign Wednesday by declaring the state would provide more test kits and other resources and strengthen its communications with local authorities. That rightly recognizes that cities and counties are the front lines in Florida’s reopening fight. The governor, though, has two unique contributions to make. He must ensure that counties have the testing kits, protective equipment and other medical resources necessary to keep local health care systems from being overwhelmed. And he needs to fix the state’s unemployment system to get money churning through the devastated economy.
Even as the gradual re-opening begins Monday, the situation will evolve. Restaurants and retailers will decide whether they want to re-open with the restrictions. In Pinellas, Gualtieri said, some cities are considering closing some streets to allow more room for restaurants to provide outdoor seating with social distancing and to accommodate pedestrians. Area governments should make the general requirements across the region as uniform as possible. Businesses and the public need predictability. That’s the only way to begin on the orderly path toward normalization.
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