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Republican Hillsborough officials block effort to protect those who choose to wear face masks

The recommended policy was not a mandate, but Republicans balked anyway.

The Hillsborough Emergency Policy Group is again split along party lines over protections for residents amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Every single Republican on the eight member board voted against a measure that would have allowed, not required, residents to wear facial coverings in public and at work unless overarching laws said otherwise.

The measure, proposed by Hillsborough County Commissioner Kimberly Overman, was meant to protect residents and workers who have reportedly been threatened by job loss or been refused service at a business because they were wearing a face mask.

The no votes from Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandra Murman, Sheriff Chad Chronister, School Board member Melissa Snively, Plant City Mayor Rick Lott and Temple Terrace Vice Mayor Andy Ross, were delivered amid fears such an order would violate individuals’ private property rights and overstep the board’s authority.

Hillsborough County attorneys debunked the latter argument to no avail.

“We believe that the order as drafted is legally defensible,” said Hillsborough Senior Assistant County attorney Rudy Haidermota.

The board’s three Democrats — Overman, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor and Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller — all supported the measure.

Castor and Overman both expressed particular outrage.

“This is a very simple issue and it’s trying to be framed as something that’s more difficult than it is,” Castor said. “It’s being blown out of proportion in my personal opinion.”

Castor audibly sighed in shock when Chronister, through an agency representative, voted against the face mask issue, indicating she had expected him to break with his own party.

Overman lobbed a soft threat at her Republican colleagues, arguing their no-votes would send a message to voters that they weren’t concerned with residents’ right to protect their health.

“All it says if you choose to you have the right to wear a face covering. It’s not a mandate to wear one. The employees shouldn’t fear being terminated for taking responsible steps to ensure their well being and those around them,” Overman said.

The conversation came after members heard lengthy presentations about Hillsborough County’s COVID-19 caseload, which has been steadily increasing over the past two weeks.

“Yesterday it was the highest day that we’ve ever had. It was almost 100 cases. Today I think it was 95,” Murman said, estimating recent case updates.

The state reported 114 new cases Wednesday for a total of 2,479, the highest concentration of overall cases in the state outside of South Florida.

Members also expressed concern about cases continuing to increase as protesters flood the streets speaking out about the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and overarching police brutality and systemic racism.

The packed crowds could serve as hotbeds for community spread.

Members, even those who voted against the face mask measure, are also worried about bars reopening Friday, though no action was taken to override Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Phase Two reopening, which allows bars to reopen at 50% capacity. Local governments are allowed to implement stricter measures.

Janelle Irwin Taylor has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. Most recently, Janelle reported for the Tampa Bay Business Journal. She formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a die-hard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics, including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and contentious issues surrounding transit. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also a devoted wife and mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder.

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