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As COVID-19 cases climb in Tampa Bay, local leaders look to regionalism for answers

Hillsborough County surpassed 1,000 deaths attributed to COVID-19 on Wednesday.

Local leaders from across Tampa Bay are taking a regional approach to combat the rise of COVID-19 in the area.

“COVID-19 doesn’t know where a city ends and a county begins, and so that’s even more of a reason for us all to come together and make sure that that we can prevent this disease,” Tampa Mayor Jane Castor said during a virtual meeting Thursday.

Pinellas and Hillsborough counties have both seen a significant uptick in coronavirus cases within the past few weeks. On Wednesday, Hillsborough County surpassed 1,000 deaths attributed to COVID-19, a grim milestone. Pinellas County isn’t far behind with 966 deaths attributed to the virus.

Leaders at the meeting discussed strategies for working together to ensure ordinances and policies are similar across the bay to prevent the spread.

“It is an important conversation that we’re having — it really only works and we’re only able to be effective at fighting COVID if we’re doing things regionally,” St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said. “If we don’t have uniform policy, it makes it that much harder for us to really combat that.”

The Hillsborough County Commission enhanced its mitigation ordinance on Wednesday to mirror that of Pinellas County by moving to require all individuals to be seated when eating or drinking at a restaurant, as well as prohibiting dance floors and loitering next to bars.

Both counties also made clear that they are cracking down on businesses that do not follow the ordinances. At the start of December, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri came down hard on businesses, especially bars and restaurants, that were non-compliant.

“The few businesses that aren’t being good citizens in the community have got to be addressed,” Castor said. 

At the meeting, Kriseman announced that the city of St. Pete has so far issued 189 citations in regard to COVID-19 ordinances — and Mayor Castor pointed out that these citations do have penalties. 

Castor said the citations can range from a civil citation up to a fine of $500. It can even become a second degree misdemeanor punishable by a fine of $500 or 60 days in jail, she said.

While Gov. Ron DeSantis blocked local governments from imposing fines on residents who don’t comply with local COVID-19 ordinances, his order did not address fines for businesses, a loophole officials are using to maintain teeth in local rules.

While the mayors made clear they do not want to give out citations, it was clear among the regional leaders that the ordinances will be enforced.

Local governments have also launched several campaigns to stop the spread. In Tampa, there is a new #HappyatHomeTPA initiative and a “Choose you mask” marketing campaign, and St. Pete just launched a “Race to Safe” mitigation campaign.

“The light at the end of the tunnel is coming,” Kriseman said.We just have to be patient and continue to take simple steps and we will get there, and we will get there together.”

Written By

Kelly Hayes studied journalism and political science at the University of Florida. Kelly was born and raised in Tampa Bay. A recent graduate, she enjoys government and legal reporting. She has experience covering the Florida Legislature as well as local government, and is a proud Alligator alum. You can reach Kelly at kelly@floridapolitics.com.

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