Pinellas County Commission passes safer at home resolution

Pinellas County Administrator Barry Burton, left, and Sheriff Bob Gualtieri talk to county commissioners during a March 25 emergency meeting to discuss a safer at home resolution, which was passed unanimously.

CLEARWATER — Pinellas County commissioners gave unanimous approval March 25 to a resolution they’re calling "safer at home," which is intended to send a strong message about the need to take action to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Safer at home does not completely shut down the county’s businesses, but it does require them all to be able to maintain social distancing and other protective measures.

Commissioners also voted to extend a local state of emergency for another seven days.

“People are not taking this crisis seriously,” said County Administrator Barry Burton, as he reviewed some of the measures the commission had already taken in the interest of public, health and safety.

He said after voting to close the beaches to help stop the spread of the coronavirus, people moved to the sandbars to gather in large numbers, and a local bookstore also had allowed large numbers of people on its premises.

Social distancing calls for groups of less than 10. Burton said there were other examples where people didn’t follow the guidelines, including local playgrounds.

Burton said the safer at home resolution was intended to strike a balance, allowing businesses that are doing the right thing to stay open and provide for enforcement actions for those who don’t.

The concern is that without taking additional steps to stop the spread, Pinellas County could find itself in the same position as New York within a week or two.

The resolution, which goes into effect at noon Thursday, March 26, requires the public to maintain a distance of 6 feet from others and to not gather in groups of more than 10. It urges people to stay home as much as possible.

It says non-essential activity and transportation should be limited with people being allowed to leave their homes to seek primary, emergency or direct care support for a family member, friend or pet. Other essential activities include healthcare and medical services; groceries; meal take-out from local restaurants; essential work that can’t be done from home; banks and related financial institutions; laundry services, laundromats; essential home repairs and maintenance; veterinarians and pet boarding facilities; and gas stations, auto-supply and auto-repair facilities; and more.

Outdoor activities will be allowed as long as people practice guidelines recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Businesses that must close include places with amusement rides; carnivals; water parks; publicly accessible pools, zoos; museums, arcades, fairs; publicly accessible children’s play centers; publicly accessible playground equipment; theme parks; bowling alleys; pool halls; movie and other theaters; concert and music halls; country clubs; and social clubs and fraternal organizations.

Businesses are required to close storefront operations and limit customer foot traffic if they don’t provide essential services or if they cannot maintain social distancing guidelines.

Burton said staff had worked long and hard on the resolution. The plan is to keep as many businesses open as possible and employees working, but he said if people did not follow the rules, the commission could enact more aggressive actions.

“People need to heed the warning or we will shut you down,” Burton said. “If you don’t take action, we will have to do more.”

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman advocated enacting stronger restrictions now. He did not support allowing nonessential businesses to stay open if they maintain social distancing measures.

Commissioners debated the options for more than two hours. Sheriff Bob Gualtieri and County Attorney Jewel White talked about enforcement actions and potential criminal penalties for those that don’t comply. White said it would be a second-degree misdemeanor with punishments of up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine.

Gualtieri said he preferred to use a carrot rather than a stick to enforce the resolution, but said he would take action for businesses that flagrantly violate the rules. He suggested that a notice be delivered to every business to post on their front door and the commission agreed.

The commission did not set an end date for the resolution, but said it would like be continued, discontinued or even strengthened when the local state of emergency is considered each week.

Commissioner Chair Pat Gerard isn’t so sure that safer at home will be enough to persuade those who aren’t following the guidelines. She thinks it is likely that the commission will have to take additional measures.

Dr. Ulyee Choe continues to urge the public to take personal preventative measures. He reminds the public that COVID-19 is a novel virus with no vaccine and no cure. He asked that people not only practice social distancing, but also wash their hands frequently and stay at home if they are sick. He also asks the public to help one another.

“This is a time to be kind and to help others,” he said.

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

Added information on when the resolution might end.