It appears the county commission may soon handle the pandemic response, stripping the power from the EPG. Under the proposal, the EPG would remain in place to navigate the county through hurricanes but pandemics would be managed by the county.
Florida has surpassed 300,000 cases of COVID-19 and has become one of the top epicenters in the nation for the virus.
As of Wednesday, Florida has 301,810 positive cases with 10,181 new cases on Wednesday alone. The state also added 112 deaths on Wednesday, bringing the statewide death toll to 4,521. Florida’s rolling seven-day average for deaths is now 92 per day, making the Sunshine State the home of the second-highest death rate in the country. Texas still has the worst ranking, though only slightly.
It came as no surprise with the rapidly increasing numbers that the members of Hillsborough County’s Emergency Policy Group ended up keeping the mask mandate in place with no revisions.
Tim Dudley, the county’s Emergency Management Director, told the EPG on Monday that 10,448 people were tested for COVID-19 coronavirus through Hillsborough’s public testing initiative during the week of July 6.
Demand for testing is still on the rise, so Dudley said the Brandon testing site increased its number of available appointments at that site from 300 to 800 slots per week. Overall, the seven-day average positivity rate remains at about 20 percent per day for the county. Hospital admissions are spiking once again with an average of nearly 70 new patients being admitted each day.
The only conversation that did pop up was a discussion on whether the group should still meet twice a week. It was floated by County Commissioner Sandy Murman, but when further discussion on the rising numbers arose the conversation shifted to perhaps having the medical presentations on Monday and then an “open conversation” on Thursday.
There’s a good chance all of the back and forth will be for naught, however, as the county commission prepares to strip the power of the EPG for the pandemic and take over its responsibilities.
Commission Chairman Les Miller Jr. was the first to urge the county commission to consider taking over the reins. Miller is also the chair of the EPG. He said he believes the EPG should remain in place but should deal solely with hurricanes. The pandemic would be handled by the county commission.
The idea was floated recently and Miller said the group — which was created in the ‘90s — has always done a fantastic job at handling weather emergencies. Hurricanes have become a routine and they have the response down to a science.
The pandemic is another story altogether. The group members created policies for the first time in the state’s history, wading into uncharted waters and frequently debating the scope and power of their own authority.
The public has voiced frustration on social media, via calls and emails to individual EPG members and during the public comments that comprise the first 20 minutes of each meeting. The group has had many successes, but not without its fair share of stumbles.
The curfew, for example, was put into place and then rescinded in the span of a week following massive public outcry.
The mask mandate for the county has had a tsunami of opposition and support. Every Monday and Thursday during the EPG meetings, community members call in without fail to voice their thoughts on the order and ask for them to either get rid of it altogether or keep it in place.
Few votes via the EPG have been unanimous and there is a clear divide among members. Plant City Mayor Rick Lott, Acting Temple Terrace Mayor Andy Ross, School Board Chair Melissa Snively and Sheriff Chad Chronister frequently oppose policies floated by the other members of the group. The issue of any mandate or order frequently draws hesitation from those listed above as “unintended consequences” remain at the forefront of their decision making.
Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, Miller and County Commissioners Murman and Kimberly Overman, however, seem reluctant to do anything less with the rising numbers. In fact, when the EPG failed to act, Castor implemented her own order for the City of Tampa to ensure her residents would operate under what she believed to be the safest policies.
That divide would shift if the county commission took over the pandemic response.
The issue will be discussed at a special meeting on July 21, then the commission will vote on it on Aug. 5 after a public hearing.