COVID sign
Law enforcement officers are visiting bars and restaurants, handing out this poster that reminds employees and patrons of the Pinellas County ordinance requiring masks.

LARGO — As COVID-19 cases have reached levels not seen since the summer months, Pinellas County officials met Dec. 3 to sound the alarm that should the increasing trend continue, residents may face bleak consequences.

Pinellas County Administrator Barry Burton and Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, along with St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman and Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard, urged residents to continue wearing masks and social distancing — now more than ever.

Burton began the session by announcing new data suggesting cases of the coronavirus are increasing at a steady pace within the county. According to Burton, on Oct. 30, the number of new cases each day was 74; as of Nov. 29, that number is now 234. Also on Oct. 30, the county's positivity percent rate was 2.4 percent. It is now 8.4 percent, Burton said. In addition, the county's weekly death rate has averaged over the last four weeks to be between 13 and 20 persons per week.

Testing sites are also seeing an uptick in residents, Burton said. At Tropicana Field on Oct. 30, 525 residents were tested. As of Dec. 2, more than 1,400 were tested.

Over the past month, new cases per day have tripled and the number of patients on ventilators have also nearly doubled in that time, from 32 to 57. Increases in deaths typically lag one to two weeks behind increases in new cases.

"The problem is very clear," Burton said. "The cold weather, the flu season, coronavirus — it all comes together. It all stresses our health care system, and it also stresses our first responders," Burton said.

Gualtieri, who tested positive for coronavirus earlier in the year, told listeners that the threat continues to be very real for residents.

"I can tell you as someone who’s had COVID — it’s not fun," he said. "It’s not the flu. It’s very serious. It’s very dangerous, and there are a lot of vulnerable people out there that are really at risk."

Gualtieri said he realizes that COVID fatigue is real, but now is not the time to ignore safety measures.

"We understand people are tired," he said. "People are exhausted. Businesses need to thrive. But if we don’t change the course, we will end up in a bad place."

The sheriff said over the last month, he's seen an increasing trend of bar and restaurant owners and employees not following CDC protocols.

Over a three-day period from Nov. 13 to Nov. 15, Gualtieri sent deputies throughout the county to 2,800 area bars and restaurants to gauge the level of social distancing taking place both inside and outside of the facilities.

"What we found during that three-day period … 40 percent of the bars and 8 percent of the restaurants were not in compliance," Gualtieri said.

Primary violations were with staff members not wearing face coverings, inappropriate social distancing and patrons not wearing face masks, he said.

Gualtieri said deputies will be placing new signage at businesses to remind owners and patrons about safety protocols.

Gualtieri also set out to correct a common misunderstanding about the county's emergency ordinance.

"There are a lot of people who are under the impression that the county ordinance doesn’t have any teeth because Gov. DeSantis issued an order that said fines and penalties are suspended," he said. "But there is the end to that sentence — fines and penalties are suspended for individuals, but fines and penalties are not suspended for businesses."

If some local businesses continue to disregard mask and social distancing mandates, Gualtieri said he would consider the possibility of citing owners.

"It’s a big deal. We want to make sure we can take this to the finish line with minimal impact on our community," he said.

Pinellas County has extended its State of Local Emergency for COVID-19 through Dec. 11. The extension keeps in effect an ordinance requiring face coverings within public places, and restaurants and bars to serve only patrons who are seated.