Pinellas County votes to shut down all nonessential businesses

Pinellas County Administrator Barry Burton and Sheriff Bob Gualtieri talk to the County Commission April 2 about the need to clarify the governor’s stay-at-home order and how it applies to nonessential businesses.

All nonessential businesses in Pinellas County must close. County commissioners voted unanimously to take that action in an April 2 emergency meeting.

The order applies to businesses in incorporated and unincorporated areas and goes into effect at 12:01 a.m. Friday, April 3. It will expire when the local state of emergency expires in seven days and may be extended as necessary.

Commissioners are concerned about the ambiguity contained in the order issued by Gov. Ron DeSantis that takes effect at midnight tonight that restricts Floridians ability to leave their homes for anything that is not deemed to be an essential activity.

The county’s interpretation is that the order does not necessarily close those businesses, but it does prevent employees and the public from entering those locations because they are not essential.

To make it clear that people are not allowed to go to those places, the county decided the best course of action was to shut them down.

Essential businesses will be determined as specified in the governor’s order that references the Office of Homeland Security and orders in Miami-Dade County.

The county’s resolution says any retail business, operation or organization not included within the category of “essential services” or “essential activity” defined in the governor’s order must close. It allows for any amendments to that order.

Examples of businesses that are now open but must shut down include hair salons, nail salons, massage parlors, furniture stores, bookstores, clothing stores, florists and jewelry stores. That list only contains examples. Many more businesses will have to close.

The county’s resolution also states that essential business, which can remain open, must take measures to the maximum extent possible to maintain social distancing — groups of 10 or less with people spaced six-feet apart. The businesses also must take sanitation measures and practice hygiene.

In addition, the resolution gives the county administrator the power to shut down an essential business if it does not comply with social distancing guidelines. The business will be given an opportunity to do as asked before its doors would be closed.

County Administrator Barry Burton and Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said the county had the power to enact measures that were stricter than the governor’s order, but could not do less than what was required statewide.

Normally, that would be true; however, unknown to the county Thursday morning, the governor had amended his stay-at-home order to state it cannot be superseded orders by local governments.

Gualtieri said at a media briefing Friday that local governments can impose their own measures as long as they don't conflict with the governor's orders. He said the county's local orders are OK.

Gualtieri said businesses generally had been doing a good job complying with the orders enacted by the county last week. He set up a tip line, 727-582-TIPS (8477), which is open from 7 a.m.-11 p.m. seven days a week, for the public to report businesses not following the rules.

As of April 1, 460 calls had been received. The sheriff has six response teams working from 7 a.m.-11 p.m. to go out and investigate those calls. So far, no business has been fined, but some have been educated, he said.

He said most of the complaints had come in about public swimming pools, and a few restaurants had not closed their dining rooms. Complaints also had come in about call centers with 200-300 people in one room.

A lot of questions still have to be answered and county staff and the sheriff’s office are working on a list of businesses that would be considered nonessential. Tampa Bay Newspapers will provide that list as soon possible.

Burton, Gualtieri and the commissioners said it was likely not everyone would agree with what was considered a nonessential business. Commissioners were receiving texts, emails and phone calls from the public during the meeting on that subject.

Everyone agreed gray areas would exist; however, the county does not have the option to define what is essential.

Gualtieri said the county’s action was intended to “remove ambiguity where we have the power to remove ambiguity.”

Staff also is working to determine if marinas are considered an essential business as there is some disagreement on that point. For now, county staff says they are and they will remain open.

The governor’s “safer-at-home” order goes into effect at 12:01 a.m. Friday, April 3, and expires Thursday, April 30.

The order requires that people stay home and “limit their movements and personal interactions to only those necessary to obtain or provide essential services or conduct essential services.”

The order continues to advise the public to avoid all social and recreational gatherings of 10 or more people and to remain six-feet apart. All those who can work remotely are advised to do so.

Seniors and those with chronic medical conditions are required to stay home; however, the sheriff says that order needs to be followed using commonsense.

The county also voted to extend its local state of emergency and continue with all the measures included in the previous safer-at-home order, which includes closure of pools and playground and areas of public assembly that are not included in the governor’s order. Beaches remain closed.

County commissioners and Department of Health Director in Pinellas County Ulyee Choe say that everything possible should be done to try to stop the spread of the coronavirus in Pinellas.

As of Thursday morning, DOH was reporting 239 cases in Pinellas with six deaths. Statewide, cases totaled 8,010 with 128 deaths.

Suzette Porter is TBN’s Pinellas County editor. She can be reaches at sporter@tbnweekly.com.

Revised to include additional information. Revised to address how the governor's order would work with local orders.