Hillsborough commissioners move closer to taking over pandemic response from EPG

The Hillsborough County Commission voted Wednesday to begin the process of retaking most of the power that had been delegated to the county’s Emergency Policy Group, leaving the EPG intact only for hurricane-related emergencies.

The motion – put forward by Commissioner Les Miller, who also chairs the EPG – passed unanimously. It directs the county attorney to draft language for an order that would shift responsibility for COVID-19 planning back over to the commission. All of the current orders passed by the EPG, including the mask mandate to slow the spread of the virus, would remain in place.

Last month, the EPG ordered all businesses to enforce a mandatory face-covering rule for most employees and customers inside their locations. After getting pushback and even lawsuits from business owners forced into uncomfortable roles, the EPG shifted the burden onto individuals instead.

But facing those legal and ethical challenges, Commissioner Miller suggested dissolving the EPG and handing its responsibilities back to the county commission.

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The EPG consists of some county commissioners but also the sheriff, the school board chair, and the mayors of Hillsborough’s three cities: Tampa, Temple Terrace, and Plant City. The group historically has been primarily involved with emergencies like hurricanes.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, though, the EPG has been getting regular updates from health officials and county staff as they craft Hillsborough’s response – including the mask order.

During Wednesday’s discussion, commissioner Ken Hagan expressed concern about “switching horses midstream” but ultimately joined the six other commissioners to investigate an order that would strip the EPG of its pandemic-related planning.

The plan would return COVID-19 emergency powers to the Board of County Commissioners, and all existing executive orders would transfer “to ensure that there is no gap.” The EPG would still handle any storm-related emergencies that come up this year.

“I just feel that hurricane season is coming along. We don’t want to put that on our plate,” Miller offered.

After the county attorney drafts launguage for the change, the commission will vote on it, possibly next month.