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How Hillsborough County’s safer at home order might not have happened without Jane Castor

She turned a hard no into a solid yes.

Over the course of 72 hours a group of elected leaders in Hillsborough County went from expressing serious reservations about implementing a stay at home order for residents and visitors to approving almost the exact same plan they had previously rejected.

The shift in mindset wasn’t due to a change in circumstance, even though coronavirus cases over those three days drastically increased.

Not one member of the Hillsborough County Emergency Policy Management Group (EPG) referenced the uptick in numbers when they went from a “we don’t have enough information” mindset to a serious tone of limiting social interaction.

So what changed? Tampa Mayor Jane Castor did.

To get a complete understanding of how Castor went from having very little support for an order to getting one approved requires zooming out and examining the events that transpired over the past several days.

Last weekend Castor made comments to several media outlets saying she would be surprised if a stay at home order didn’t happen this week, possibly even very early in the week.

This set the tone for the week’s conversation. The Tampa community, and Hillsborough County at large, began to buzz in anticipation. Comments flooded social media in a show of support, though a few expressed reservation and even outright contempt.

Fast forward to Monday. The EPG met to discuss options. Castor laid out her plan.

Her proposed stay at home order would have required nonessential businesses that are unable to adhere to social distancing recommendations to close. Essential businesses, like grocery stores, pharmacies, gas stations and banks, as well as any business that can shift its workforce to remote work, would be permitted to stay open.

Castor said under her order individuals would still be able to do things like go for walks or bike rides, but social distancing recommendations would be enforced and anyone congregating in groups would be broken up.

But six of the eight members of the EPG balked — all of the board’s Republicans and one Democrat.

“There’s nowhere to go anyway. The only people I see out are going to the grocery stores and the pharmacies,” said Temple Terrace Vice Mayor Andy Ross, a Republican. “I question the real impact this is going to have anyway.”

Hillsborough County School Board Chair Melissa Snively questioned the impact a stay at home order would have on law enforcement and itsability to enforce the order.

“Without a thoughtful plan in place then it wouldn’t be prudent to move forward with something like this,” Snively said.

She supported instead a curfew that would give residents and visitors a hard deadline to be in their homes and open the door for law enforcement to have easier reason to question a person out during the curfew.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandy Murman agreed, prompting her to make a motion to move forward with a curfew. Asked by Castor to also include moving forward with a stay at home order, or at least have a draft ordinance brought back for consideration on Thursday, Murman delivered a hard “no.”

Enter Tuesday. Castor took to a microphone to announce she would be moving forward with her own citywide order — the same guidelines she proposed the previous day with the EPG.

Later that day Hillsborough County Administrator and EPG head Mike Merrill issued an Administrator Order basically saying any order issued citywide, not countywide, would be invalid.

Castor forged forward anyway, drawing a flurry of social media support.

“Shut it down,” “we support you 100%, “good to know the medical experts of Hillsborough County have decided the virus is only contagious from 9p to 5a” were among some of the comments on Castor’s Facebook Live announcement. In all more than 700 comments came in, most in support of a stay at home order.

Castor planned to implement the order at midnight on Thursday, but she never had to. What onlookers expected to be a feud, emerged instead as progress.

By Wednesday morning Merrill was already drafting an outline for both a stay at home directive and a curfew. He had it ready to go for the EPG’s Wednesday meeting, which hadn’t originally been scheduled.

The tone changed entirely. Gone were the comments about questioning the necessity of such an order. No one was saying the move was premature. No one pulled out the line that people were already social distancing, so why bother?

Instead the group landed in a protracted debate over semantics. Do we really need to have the word “curfew” in this.

Rewind to the original Monday discussion. Castor wanted nothing to do with a curfew. She warned reluctant EPG members that a curfew would be more restrictive, not less. The stay at home language allowed people to roam freely, so long as they were practicing social distancing guidelines. A curfew would give a hard mandate to stay home.

In the end, she got almost exactly what she asked for, and all she had to do was up the public pressure.

Janelle Irwin Taylor has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in Tampa Bay since 2003. Most recently, Janelle reported for the Tampa Bay Business Journal. She formerly served as senior reporter for WMNF News. Janelle has a lust for politics and policy. When she’s not bringing you the day’s news, you might find Janelle enjoying nature with her husband, children and two dogs. You can reach Janelle at Janelle@floridapolitics.com.

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