Is Governor Ron DeSantis reopening Florida too quickly or too slowly? That question is on the minds of many in Hillsborough County and the general public has channeled its tension toward the Emergency Policy Group.
As the state continues to open in phases, tensions are rising between the general public and elected officials.
An argument about where the line is between being safe and making policies that can stimulate the economy is arising. Governor Ron DeSantis has allowed sections of businesses to reopen in waves. While those that have been a part of the initial plans have seen a flood of patrons’ support, those who felt left out have been increasingly vocal of their desire to be allowed to open their doors as well.
The reality stated repeatedly in recent Emergency Policy Group meetings, though, was that the county cannot do anything without the governor’s consent. It’s essentially left in his hands.
Following that train of thought, Plant City Mayor Rick Lott brought up the EPG’s meeting schedule. The group has met since nearly the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in Florida. The switch to meeting twice a week began March 12 and decisions like the Safer-at-Home order, standing up testing sites and even the short-lived nightly curfew were made from it.
The power for the path forward now largely lies with the governor, so Lott recommended the group alter its schedule to return to meeting only on Thursday afternoons. If an emergency were to occur or new and alarming data comes in, the group could easily have an emergency meeting to tackle the new information.
The topic brought up a wide discussion across the group. Tampa Mayor Jane Castor still believes it is too soon to shorten their meeting schedule and was ultimately the only group member to vote against the motion.
County Commissioner Kimberly Overman initially seemed to agree with Castor and voiced her confusion on the future during discussion of the motion.
“I’m trying to get a handle on what our timeline on exposure looks like,” Overman said. “Dr. (Douglas) Holt has told us where we are with nursing homes, but we’ve seen a lot more traffic out over the last two weeks and I’m curious what that timeline looks like when we get to a point where a decision is made by the governor that we follow along with, as an Emergency Policy Group, that directly impacts the people within our community. I’m just seeing that it’s 10 to 14 days before we start to see the numbers creep up a little bit when we have an event or something that actually raises the exposure rates, but we only meet, you know, if we meet just once a week we may end up being 10 to 14 days behind the power curve.”
Overman went on to say that while she understands that the votes indicated the motion by Lott would pass, she was curious as to where the flag was and who was going to raise it when either a decision by the governor is made or something occurs in the community that “doesn’t fit on a Thursday.”
County Administrator Mike Merrill and EPG Chair Les Miller Jr. quickly intervened. Merrill informed Overman he has been working hand-in-hand with the Florida Department of Health and local hospitals to ensure the county is always fully informed with the latest health information coming from the area. If a warning light were to flare, he said he would quickly alert Miller to call an emergency meeting.
During a similar suggestion that was brought up by Lott on May 4 to switch to meeting once a week, Merrill said he welcomed the idea because having his entire staff prep for two in-depth meetings every week was “time-consuming” and pulled them away from other duties.
As the country has seen so much over the past few months, the public is torn on the best path forward.
Dave Buyens replied to an inquiry regarding the group on the Plant City Observer’s Facebook page that he believes meeting once a week was the right decision because the group might be needed again. Clyde Bull Nelson commented they should continue meeting once per week via video conferencing. Many residents have either called in or commented on social media to say they believe the EPG has done its due diligence and should now slow down, if not completely shut down.
“Let their Emergency expire and follow the Governor,” Beth Lamb Parks commented on the Observer’s Facebook. “Please let us get back to making America Great.”
Several others echoed her sentiment and called for it to expire.
However, new information does continue to arise each time they meet. Dr. Douglas Holt, the county’s health director for the Florida Department of Health, gives the latest and most expansive health data in every meeting.
The EPG members learned on Monday that Hillsborough County had created a “step-down” facility for elderly patients hospitalized due to COVID-19 and who were healthy enough to no longer require a continued stay at a hospital, but not yet at the stage where they can return to their long-term care facilities. The facility opened on Monday, but Merrill said as of Monday afternoon he didn’t know if any patients had been admitted.
Merrill expanded on the topic following the meeting in a call with reporters saying the facility was a 60-bed space with medical experts on staff and the equipment and resources required to properly care for the patients. Patients have to have two negative test results at a minimum of 24 hours apart to be allowed back into their adult facility, so many patients are being kept in the hospital for far longer than they need the high-quality care.
The next EPG meeting will be at 1:30 p.m. Thursday. Starting next week, the group will only meet virtually on Thursday afternoons unless an emergency meeting is called.