Without strong stay-at-home order, Hillsborough puts residents at risk

On March 23, Hillsborough County’s Emergency Policy Group met to discuss the possibility of issuing a stay-at-home order to combat the coronavirus (COVID-19). Tampa Mayor Jane Castor spearheaded the effort to convince the group to issue such an order, but was defeated 6-2 on a nearly party-line vote, with opponents citing economic concerns.

Stay-at-home orders are one tool that state and local governments can use to stop the spread of COVID-19. They require all people aside from essential workers — like health care workers, government employees and grocery store workers — to stay home from work.

These orders are critical for ensuring that the health care system isn’t overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients. If too many people get the virus all at once, the number of people seeking emergency care could outstrip hospital capacity, leaving thousands waiting for treatment in dire straits.

Such an order is especially important for Florida, a large metropolitan state with a sizable elderly population. Current projections from COVID Act Now, a team of data scientists and engineers working to forecast the spread of COVID-19 in the U.S., estimate that without a stay-at-home order, Florida could see its hospital capacity overwhelmed in early May. This scenario could lead to thousands of preventable deaths.

Florida Department of Health figures show that Hillsborough alone has about 100 confirmed COVID-19 cases, the fourth-highest number of cases in the state behind South Florida counties Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade. 

Nearly a third of those cases are unrelated to travel, suggesting that the virus may already be spreading through the Tampa Bay community. By choosing to wait instead of acting decisively, the Emergency Policy Group is wasting precious minutes and putting Hillsborough residents at risk.

Orange County, which includes Orlando, passed a stay-at-home order Tuesday. Why did these officials take strong action, with fewer cases than Hillsborough, while most of Hillsborough’s did not?

One major concern from Emergency Policy Group members is how a stay-at-home order might affect economic activity. While it’s true that these measures will impact jobs and businesses, the potential risks are substantially worse. There will be time to support and rebuild economic activity after this crisis. The same can’t be said for people’s lives.

For now, Hillsborough County is on track to pass a “safer-at-home” order, a non-enforceable directive to stay home, along with an enforceable 10 p.m. weekday curfew and a 24-hour weekend curfew. These restrictions are better than none, but even these measures are incomplete. 

Without enforcement provisions, there’s no guarantee that people will choose not to work during weekdays, especially with an economic downturn on the horizon. The curfew order is similarly insufficient — it’s not like COVID-19 only chooses to spread during nights and weekends, and many people will likely already be in their homes during this time.

When it comes to containing this disease, Hillsborough residents can’t afford to wait. COVID-19 certainly isn’t waiting.

Nathaniel Sweet is a senior studying political science.