ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - As the Tampa Bay area continues to see an "exponential" growth in the number of COVID-19 cases, Pinellas County commissioners said face coverings could become a requirement, but they need to finalize the details.
During Thursday's meeting, commissioners said there were packed bars over the weekend, including some in downtown St. Petersburg and on the county's beaches. They noted that most of the cases in the recent spike are among those between the ages of 25 and 35.
Several Pinellas County restaurants and bars have temporarily closed, either because employees have tested positive for the coronavirus or owners are taking the precaution due to recent spikes within the county.
County Administrator Barry Burton, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri and County Attorney Jewel White will spend the next few days to finalize details on which businesses must follow the mask mandate, and whether patrons will be required to wear face coverings, too.
A drafted order will be presented at Tuesday's commission meeting.
"These bar owners have to be responsible or we will take additional action," Burton said.
That discussion came after the group heard from the chief medical officer for one of the state’s largest hospital groups, HCA of West Florida.
“I am just begging you to think very carefully about mandating masks for indoors in public places,” Dr. Larry Feinman said. “I oversee the care of 15 COVID units in our division, four of which are in your county. I am more comfortable walking into our COVID units than I am walking into the Publix down the street. I am terrified when I walk in there because the only people that have a mask on are me and the cashier.”
Yesterday, St. Petersburg made masks mandatory for public-facing employees working within the city limits. It was a move that the sheriff agreed with, saying the problem appears to be among those who have repeated contact with customers throughout the day, specifically hospitality workers.
"I think that's common sense. I wholeheartedly agree with that, especially in that service industry," Gualtieri said. "I think Mayor Kriseman got it right on that because of the repeat stuff."
Commissioners agreed there should be no criminal consequence for not wearing a mask, but possibly a civil fine. Sheriff Gualtieri emphasized that people who are not wearing masks won't be a arrested, reiterating that the mandate cannot be fully enforced.
"Nobody is going to jail for not wearing a mask. It's not happening and I'm not doing it," he said.
He suggested that commissioners, especially restaurants and bars, could limit the number of people allowed inside the business.
Dr. Ulyee Choe, director of the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County, said the county has seen a slight decline in ICU availability.
"The virus tells you what to do and it's telling us what we are not doing enough social distancing and we're not wearing enough masks," Choe said. "We're really at the second inning of this."
He suggested there needs to be a balance between keeping businesses open and doing preventative measures.
Commissioners said they want to stay ahead of any further spike in cases.
"We see the storm is coming," Commissioner Ken Welch said, "and that's not even counting in the fact that phase two of the reopening was just June 5, so we haven't seen that impact. We haven't seen the impact of the protests, and folks were not social distancing."
He said there are not many methods to combat the spread of the coronavirus.
"We have a problem here and we have a limited tools to deal with it. If we don't act with masks, what can we do?" Welch questioned. "It's not permanent. It's to help flatten the curve."
Commissioner Dave Eggers said those on the board have received social media messages and emails from country residents saying being forced to wear a mask is an infringement on rights.
"Wearing a mask is taking care of somebody else," he countered. "If you're not wearing a mask, understand you can be hurting someone else."
"People are not being responsible. Business owners are not being responsible," said chairwoman Pat Gerard. "We saw what worked in New York City is the lockdown, and we don't want to go back to that."
The full commission meeting can be viewed below: