CLEARWATER — Pinellas County commissioners voted unanimously Nov. 17 to extend the local state of emergency until Nov. 27. The countywide ordinance requiring that face masks be worn in indoor public places when social distancing is not possible also remains in effect.
County Administrator Barry Burton answered a question from the public about when criteria would be released that would help decide when the state of emergency and face mask ordinance would be lifted. He said because the number of COVID-19 cases had been increasing, staff had not been concerned with setting a date to end the local state of emergency. The plan now is to present criteria sometime near the end of December.
Burton told commissioners that the number of new cases and positivity rates were reaching levels not seen since this summer.
Dr. Ulyee Choe, director of the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas, said case counts and positivity rates had been increasing in recent weeks, as well as the number of deaths. The average seven-day rolling case count is up to 202 and the positivity rate is up to 6%, compared to 3% in September.
The health care system is still doing OK; however, hospitals are reporting more COVID-occupied rooms with more patients in ICU and on ventilators.
Choe said small group settings continued to be the most likely cause of community spread. He encouraged people to use caution during holiday gatherings. He said if they included people outside the household, masks should be worn and social distancing practiced, including at the dining table.
Choe also reported the latest news on two potential vaccines that look promising. He said the first people who would get a vaccination would include health care workers, first responders and those in congregant settings.
“There is a light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “Until then we have to remain patient. Wear masks and take preventative measures. Get a flu shot.”
Choe said most of the new cases were people in their 20s and 30s with some increase in long-term care facilities. Demand at local testing sites is higher than it has ever been, Burton said.
Burton said people were getting tired of the restrictions and starting to let their guard down. He said people needed to keep up the efforts to minimize community spread until a vaccine is available.
Burton said customers and servers at local bars had stopped wearing masks, which was increasing the risk of community spread and the risk to the vulnerable population.
Burton said those who believe that Gov. Ron DeSantis had removed the ability to enforce local restrictions were wrong. He said while customers and patrons could not be fined for not wearing masks, businesses that don’t enforce the face mask mandate could be.
“We need to redouble our efforts to make sure everyone is safe,” he said.
Commission Chair Pat Gerard said it was time to let businesses and public know the commission is serious about stopping community spread in Pinellas.
“I think the light at the end of the tunnel is a train coming,” she said. “Any vaccine will be awhile.”
For more information on the county’s response to the coronavirus, visit https://covid19.pinellascounty.org/.