Hillsborough, Pinellas officials make stricter mask rules to ward off sharp increase in COVID-19 cases

Without doubling down on our efforts to wear face coverings and social distance, experts predict by early February cases in the four-county Tampa Bay region could peak at 18,000 daily new COVID-19 infections.

That surge in COVID-19 transmission is the reason Hillsborough County's Board of County Commissioners OK'd tougher facemask rules at Wednesday’s meeting.

"What we’ve found is that the later the hours are, the more fun people are having and they lose their focus on how important social distancing is," said Commissioner Kimberly Overman.

The change was effective immediately, strengthening the mask mandate that’s been in place since June.

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People are now prohibited from standing at bars, restaurants and nightclubs while eating or drinking, and you can no longer gather on the dance floor.

"Any additional steps that we can take that can help educate the public and help keep this in the forefront of people’s minds we should take," Commissioner Harry Cohen said.

The updated ordinance now mirrors Pinellas County’s order.

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Leaders from both sides of the bay came together Thursday to discuss the regional effort to crack down on business owners who ignore the social distancing and mask orders.

"We have always been trying to protect lives and livelihoods, but we need to protect lives over all else," said Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard.

Code enforcement and police across both counties have stepped up efforts, visiting businesses to remind and educate owners about the rules.   An executive order handed down by the Governor in September does not exempt businesses from local mask mandates, and they could face penalties.

"We are able to cite managers, business owners for violation of these ordinances," Tampa Mayor Jane Castor said.

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In St. Petersburg, nearly 200 citations have already been issued.

Leaders say they want businesses to stay open, but do so safely.  There is uncontrolled community spread of COVID-19 in our area, and experts warn of a looming exponential climb of cases that could overwhelm local hospitals.

"Wear those masks, it’s amazing we have such a cheap, easy way to do great protection and its shown to be very, very effective, but also follow those social distancing protocols and follow the orders, and do everything we can not to congregate in large crowds inside for over 15 minutes," said Hillsborough County Commission Chair Pat Kemp.

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