TAMPA, FL – It will now be mandatory for all employees and customers at Hillsborough County businesses to wear face masks, effective Wednesday at 5 p.m.
Following a 3 ½-hour discussion, the Hillsborough County Emergency Policy Group voted 5-3 to mandate the wearing of face masks in restaurants, grocery stores, pharmacies, retail stores and other businesses throughout the county where customers and employees are in close contact.
Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister, Plant City Mayor Rick Lott and Hillsborough County School Board chairwoman Melissa Snively voted against the measure.
The order extends to only businesses in which employees and customers interact and can't maintain social distancing guidelines. The EPG stopped short of extending the order to churches, nonprofit organizations and private events. Those who have health conditions or emotional problems that prevent them from wearing masks are exempt as well.
The decision came after a "Who’s Who" ensemble of medical experts from the University of South Florida Morsani College of Health, Tampa General Hospital and other hospitals testified about the necessity of face masks to curb the county’s rising rate of positive coronavirus cases.
They told the EPG that Tampa Bay is seeing an alarming number of cases in recent weeks with 393 positive cases on Monday alone and 2,012 cases in the last week.
Hillsborough County Department of Health
“A lot more is known now about the coronavirus than four months ago,” said Dr. Charles Lockwood, dean of the Morsani College of Health at USF. “It’s unprecedented in the history of medicine. The coronavirus is twice as infectious as influenza and about 20 times more lethal.”
Dr. Jason Wilson, an emergency room doctor at Tampa General Hospital, said, up until this week, the most emergency patients the hospital had ever seen in a day was 325 people.
On Wednesday, 520 people were admitted to TGH’s emergency room, mostly for coronavirus-related symptoms.
“What we’re seeing is a shift in the pattern,” he said. In April, most of the patients seen in the emergency room were senior citizens. “Now older people are isolating themselves so the numbers have gone down in that age range."
However, with the opening of bars and entertainment venues, Wilson said the number of adults in the 25- to 34-year-old age range who are becoming seriously ill from the virus is growing. He said the median age of the patients has dropped by half. They’re now mostly in their 30s.
“We have a rapidly escalating epidemic here in the area,” he said. “On Wednesday, we saw the flood gates open for people who had contracted the virus, mostly in social situations. The number was well over 10 percent.
“Last night we admitted five patients and none of them were from nursing homes or other group living situations,” he said. “One man was in his 40s and had no other medical problems, and he was very sick.”
TGH also has a 24-year-old patient in intensive care who will most likely need to be placed on a ventilator. A 33-year-old woman died of the coronavirus at the hospital Monday morning.
Without drastic steps to mitigate the spread of the virus, Wilson told the EPG that the number of people contracting coronavirus will eventually “overrun our health care systems.”
Seetha Lakshmi, an infectious disease specialist at USF College of Medicine and an epidemiologist at Tampa General Hospital, told the EPG about a 40-year-old woman who contracted the coronavirus.
"She became very sick with kidney and heart trouble, but then seemed to turn around, and I was hopeful for her," said Lakshmi. "This morning she died. It's a very hard thing for the teams on the front lines to deal with."
Another patient was a military veteran who coached basketball in his spare time. He contracted the coronavirus from his son and was dead within hours after coming into the emergency room, Lakshmi said.
John Couris, CEO of Tampa General Hospital, said masks are the easiest and most effective defense.
A survey by TGH and USF showed that those who wore masks have a 20 percent positive rate while those who didn't wear masks have a 70 to 80 percent positive rate.
Couris said there's no doubt that the county will experience a decrease in the daily positive coronavirus rate if the wearing of masks becomes mandatory.
Dr. Alan Harmatz, chief medical officer at Brandon Regional Hospital, said his hospital is also seeing a record number of positive patients.
“This is a particularly nasty disease for some people,” he said, speaking from experience.
Harmatz is 62 years old, athletic and a nonsmoker. He said he sat 3 to 4 feet away from a colleague for about 20 minutes. The colleague turned out to be presymptomatic for coronavirus. Harmatz and three other doctors who sat near the colleague all contracted the virus.
“For the first seven days, well, I’ve been sicker,” he said. "But on the seventh day I began to decompensate, my breathing got a lot worse.” He developed severe headaches and the red spots appeared on his toes, a condition known as COVID toes caused by blood clots."
Although he has since tested negative, he said the impact of having the virus lingers. His blood pressure is now significantly higher than it was before he contracted the virus.
"I think the longer-term effects are going to be much more apparent as time goes by," he said. "My recommendation is using face masks now will pay dividends for years to come."
Among those voting against the measure was Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister who maintained that the order would be "impossible to enforce."
"Why do we need a law to encourage citizens to do the right thing?" he said. "It should be a personal responsibility."
County Attorney Christine Beckman said the order puts the onus on the business owner, not law enforcement, to enforce the ordinance.
However, Commissioner Kimberly Overman worried that this would place business owners in the awkward position of having to ban customers who refuse to wear a mask or trying to determine if a customer has a valid health or emotional disability that prevents him or her from wearing a mask.
Under the order, business owners who don't comply could be charged with a second-degree misdemeanor.
"I do believe this is going to be challenging for business owners and could become a problem if a customer insists on not wearing a mask," said County Commissioner Kimberly Overman. "I don’t want to put our thousands of business owners in the position of having customers say their civil rights are being violated. We’ve already put undue strain on business owners."
Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, who issued a similar order for the city of Tampa effective last Friday, said she believes the majority of business owners and customers understand the severity of the issue and will comply.
"We’ve had less than a dozen calls to law enforcement about this," she said.
Acting Temple Terrace Mayor Andy Ross said the order has to include an enforcement element or it becomes little more than a strong suggestion to wear masks.
"All of our orders are only misdemeanors," he said. "If we take that out, we don’t have anything. I don’t think those numbers (of business owners who refuse to comply) are going to be very big at all. I think most business owners will comply. There will be one or two, and they should be forced to comply."