The Tampa City Council will again welcome the public in its City Hall chambers beginning with its March 17 meeting.
It will be the first time members of the public and members of the City Council are in the same room in City Hall since in-person meetings were suspended in 2020. The public return comes three days shy of the second anniversary of an executive order suspending in-person meetings.
That directive expired at the end of 2020 and in-person meetings were moved to the much larger Tampa Convention Center. In July, meetings were moved back to City Hall, but members of the public waited in a separate room and addressed council members remotely. But as COVID-19 mitigation efforts have been dropped, including the de-escalation of masking and social distancing suggestions, the City Council kept the distance.
Mayor Jane Castor’s chief of staff, John Bennett, updated council members on the status of COVID-19 in Tampa Thursday.
“We’ve been in a tremendous decline through the month of February on the positivity rate,” he said. “I looked at the CDC, the list of variant opportunities out there. I don’t see anything on that variant list that is clearly threatening us.”
The nearby Hillsborough County Commission, along with city councils in St. Petersburg and Clearwater, returned to pre-COVID protocols months ago. A measure to return Tampa to its pre-COVID measures passed unanimously.
“I think we’re fine to come back in chambers. While everybody has to take precautions on so many different levels, we’re reasonably fine,” Council Member Luis Viera said. “We have 70%, roughly, people in this area vaccinated and I think that it’s time for us to have the public back the way it used to be.”
According to the latest data from the Florida Department of Health, the vaccination rate in Hillsborough County is 69% and the new case positivity rate is 9.7%. Florida, as a whole, has had 5.8 million COVID-19 cases reported and almost 70,000 deaths from the virus. Tampa Bay has, however, reported significant declines in COVID-19 cases since numbers surged in January.
Some of the measures might be a little different, however. City Attorney Martin Shelby reminded council members that members of the public would sometimes line the walls of the chamber or sit on window sills. Council chair Orlando Gudes, said that won’t be happening again. Shelby said the city could use the second floor, where the public currently sits and watches meetings virtually, for overflow.