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Hillsborough Downgrades Emergency Policy Group To Dealing With Hurricanes

The group that has managed Hillsborough County's response to the coronavirus pandemic may soon be out of a job.

County commissioners who wrote an ordinance to give the Hillsborough Emergency Policy Group such power modified it Wednesday to restrict the group's work to dealing with hurricanes.

 That's more in line for what the group was originally intended, said Commission Chair Les Miller.

"We're the only county out of (Florida's) 67 counties that has delegated our authority to a body with a membership such as the EPG," Miller told his fellow commissioners. "The EPG has limited enforcement options; the board of county commissioners has broader authority and more enforcement options."

He said the EPG was formed decades ago to deal with countywide emergencies, such as hurricanes. No one could have foreseen an ongoing crisis like the current pandemic, he said.

Miller has expressed frustration with some of the policy group's decisions, such as delaying a move to mandate masks be worn in public.

He told his fellow commissioners the change won't be without its challenges.

"Reverting all this back to the county commission is going to be a monumental task," he said. "You can see the numbers have gone up every day, 10,000 a day. We had more cases in Florida Saturday - with 15,300 - than all of Europe."

The reduction in the policy group's mandate is set to take effect on August 5th.

Also, commissioners approved an ordinance that would give people the right to wear face masks without fear of reprisals from their co-workers or supervisors.

Commissioner Kimberly Overman said the order would help many people with pre-existing health conditions fend off the coronavirus.

"I'm confident there will come a time when our public health professionals will recommend removal of the mandate," she said. "However, at that time, many constituents will have a lot of fears and concerns about viruses. And this ordinance would protect those citizens by allowing them to continue to wear a face covering if they so choose."

The ordinance is similar to one passed recently by the Emergency Policy Group, but this would be in effect after that group's ruling expires. Overman said she expects it to last as long as the county's declared state of emergency remains in effect.

In other news, the Tampa Sports Authority will receive $10 million in federal funding to make Raymond James Stadium more resilient to the coronavirus.

County Commissioners voted to allocate the federal CARES money to the TSA, which operates the stadium. Authority president and CEO Eric Hart said a lot needs to be done.

"We're going touchless, we're trying to move to where we can control crowds, close off areas instead of just having people wandering on the property," he told commissioners. "We will be putting markers on the ground and we'll be trying to cover and separate restrooms."

Hart says the improvements are needed for not only the upcoming Tampa Bay Buccaneers season, but because the stadium is scheduled to host Super Bowl LV in February 2021.

Copyright 2020 WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7

Steve Newborn is WUSF's assistant news director as well as a reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.