Tampa Bay right to crack down on masks | Editorial
Irresponsible business owners and patrons are indifferent to the pandemic. Time for a wake-up call.
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.

Tampa Bay officials are performing a vital public service by cracking down on irresponsible business owners who are ignoring local mask ordinances. How many Floridians need to get sick or die before bars, restaurants and retail shops show the basic common sense required of this pandemic? Pinellas and Hillsborough counties should be applauded and encouraged for putting enlightened regional self-interest in action.

The mayors of Tampa Bay’s three largest cities and the chairwomen of Pinellas and Hillsborough counties rightly threw down the gauntlet in a coordinated message Thursday. Local officials will redouble efforts to enforce county mask orders and social-distancing requirements. The move comes as infections surge across the bay area and Florida, as throughout the nation, and as many have seemingly dropped their guard with the arrival of the holiday season and new coronavirus vaccines.

Hillsborough toughened its mask order this week, banning people from congregating on dance floors and tightening the rules for wearing masks and social distancing in bars and restaurants. The move brought Hillsborough closer in line with Pinellas’ order, which — as St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman correctly noted — erases confusion for residents who work, live or shop on both sides of the bay. Officials also are taking the right approach, stressing education rather than punishment and focusing on businesses that are repeat offenders.

This campaign is sorely needed. While masks are worn nearly uniformly in major chains like Publix or Home Depot, many smaller businesses — bars, restaurants, convenience stores and gas stations — effectively ignore the requirements, fearful of alienating customers and confident that the orders won’t be enforced. Tampa Bay residents need to support the counties’ effort by voting with their wallets and patronizing retailers that demonstrate concern for their customers’ health.

Pinellas County Commission Chairwoman Pat Gerard said a recent survey by Sheriff Bob Gualtieri showed that 40 percent of bars weren’t following the county order. That is more than reasonable grounds for fining repeat offenders and singling out the bad actors to public scrutiny. Though Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an order in September allowing bars and restaurants to operate at greater capacities while removing local governments’ ability to sanction individuals, the measure did not grant the same immunity to businesses.

Local officials are filling a leadership void from the state’s refusal to take stronger action. Nine months into this pandemic, masks and distancing precautions are hardly new. And while the Food and Drug Administration was poised to give emergency approval Friday to a second vaccine, widespread inoculations are likely months away. Meanwhile, the virus’ spread is accelerating, with more than 200,000 new daily cases reported nationwide. Hospitals are filling up as the worst of winter approaches, and experts forecast a steady increase in deaths in the coming weeks.

Mayors Jane Castor of Tampa, Frank Hibbard of Clearwater and Kriseman of St. Petersburg, and county commission chairwomen Pat Kemp of Hillsborough and Gerard of Pinellas acted responsibly by joining forces to protect public health. From transportation to water issues and from dealing with climate change to protecting the environment, this isn’t the first — and hardly will be the last — opportunity for the region to work cooperatively for its mutual benefit. But it underscores again how the populations of the bay area counties are intrinsically linked. As Hibbard said: “There is no issue that is more regional ... than COVID-19.”

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 Graham Brink, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news