In order to fight the spread of Covid-19 and keep the economy open, everyone across the Tampa Bay region must work together and follow established safety protocols. Otherwise, the spike in cases each area is experiencing could get even worse.
Those were the key takeaways from a virtual press conference Thursday where St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman and Pinellas County Board of County Commission chair Pat Gerard appeared alongside elected officials from Tampa, Hillsborough County and Clearwater.
“We’re only able to be effective if we do things regionally,” Kriseman said, calling the collaboration on fighting Covid the most important thing the Tampa Bay region has ever done. “This virus does not stop at county borders or city borders, nor do our residents.”
On Wednesday, Hillsborough County commissioners voted in favor of expanding its mask mandate to require people to be seated while eating or drinking and prohibit them from congregating in bars or on dance floors. Those additions put Hillsborough County’s mandate in alignment with the one already in place in Pinellas County, a step which local leaders hope will increase compliance and eliminate confusion.
“If we don’t have uniform policies, it makes it that much harder for us to really combat this,” Kriseman said. “It makes it easier on all of our residents when policies are consistent across county lines. Everybody knows what the rules are, and we can all follow them more easily because we know these are the rules whether we’re in Tampa, we’re in Clearwater or we’re in St. Pete.”
In terms of businesses, the elected officials said that while the majority are abiding by local regulations, there are some – mainly bars and restaurants – that have repeatedly violated the rules and have received warnings and fines. Two weeks ago, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said that based on an analysis of data gathered by deputies who visited more than 2,800 bars and restaurants over a weekend in November, 40 percent of bars and eight percent of restaurants were not following the county ordinance. In St. Pete alone, Kriseman said more than 180 citations have been issued to businesses that are not complying. He added that additional actions, including the suspension or revocation of extended-hour permits for bars and restaurants, could be enforced for repeat offenders.
“Don’t make us do that,” Kriseman pleaded with business owners. “None of us want to issue one citation. We want everyone to do the right thing because it’s the right thing and because we care about each other and our communities.”
Speaking to concerns that city and county ordinances lack teeth due to an order from Governor Ron DeSantis saying that fines and penalties are suspended for individuals not wearing masks, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor said that counties are able to cite managers and business owners for violating the rules.
“No one has challenged our local mask ordinances,” she said. “Our ordinances are in effect and are sound.”
While the elected officials shared their optimism about the rollout of new vaccines and the impact they’ll have, they all stressed the importance of continuing to stay the course and do their parts to keep their communities safe.
“At this time of year, people want to relax. They want to go visit their families. They want to believe it’s going to be over soon, but we won’t be vaccinated for at least six months,” Gerard said. “We just need to hang in there a bit longer. I think we can have a huge impact if people will just wear their masks, stay home when they don’t need to go out and stay away from people who aren’t part of their family.”
The Florida Department of Health reported 24 more deaths and 554 new confirmed cases in Pinellas County Thursday, the third-highest number of new cases since the start of the pandemic. The county now has a cumulative total of 39,337 cases and 990 deaths due to Covid. The county’s two-week percent positivity rate stands at 7.08 percent.