Elections officials work to minimize impact of COVID-19 concerns on voter turnout

Concerns over the spread of novel coronavirus COVID-19 have some people questioning whether to make an in-person visit to the polls for Florida's primary elections. Monday was the first day of early voting for several Florida counties, including Hillsborough and Polk.

The last thing elections officials want is for a health concern to keep anyone from exercising their right to vote. They tell FOX 13 that if you come to a polling location, they'll have plenty of hand sanitizer and other measures in place. But if you'd rather stay home, you still have options to make sure your voice is heard.

Coronavirus has gone from a voting issue on the debate stage to a voting concern at the polls.

"We've had some people call in wanting to know what we are going to do," said Michael Bennett, Manatee County Supervisor of Elections.

Though Manatee doesn't start early voting until March 7th, they've been fielding questions from cautious voters, especially, seniors.

"Well, should I be worried about coming? I said, no, you shouldn't be worried about coming," Bennett said. 

Bennett wants to make sure voters' biggest concerns are the tiny circles on the ballots.

"On the way through the door, we will have the sanitary wipes in case they are concerned and on the early voting, they will print the ballot, depending on where they are at, hand it to them, and again, the sanitary wipes are there," Bennett said.

In Hillsborough County, officials said the protocol is the same. They have hand sanitizer at all locations. And, poll workers are instructed to practice good hygiene, keep hands clean and stay home if they're sick

However, Florida elections officials want to stress that it's not too late to get a vote by mail ballot. The deadline to request is March 7th. Just make sure to fill it out and return it as soon as possible so it can be counted.

"If they don't want to do it next year, if they want to do it just this time, that's fine," Bennett said. "I think, across the state, a lot of us are encouraging vote-by-mail."

As of Monday night, more than 2 million vote-by-mail ballots have been sent out to Florida voters. Nearly 817,000 have been returned.

While Bennett is hoping for high voter turnout, there's only one reason he'd encourage anyone to stay home.

"We are asking people if they are not feeling good, please don't come to the polls, don't cause a problem," Bennett said.

Early voting begins Friday in Hernando and Citrus counties. On Saturday, voters in Pinellas, Pasco, Manatee and Sarasota counties can head out to polling locations.