Tampa’s Mayor vs. a Covid Era Super Bowl

By Phil Galewitz, Kaiser Health News

Monday, February 1, 2021 (Kaiser News) – With its vibrant music scene and historic Ybor City teeming with bars and restaurants, Tampa has nightlife hard to beat all over Florida.

The city will have a big reason to party on Sunday – as the site of Super Bowl LV and the first city to host its own football team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, in the championship game.

The expected arrival of thousands of exuberant fans and the usual Super Bowl celebrations would appear to be a logistical headache for Mayor Jane Castor, who sought unsuccessfully last year to shut down city bars to stop the spread of covid-19 and clashed with the Republican state governor over the wisdom of a quick opening.

But 11 months after the start of the pandemic, she believes the city and the National Football League have learned enough to host the event safely – although that’s not entirely normal.

“We are stepping onto the world stage and one thing I can guarantee is that Tampa Bay is going to dance like we’ve never danced before,” she said at a recent press conference. “We make sure this is a safe event for everyone.”

Castor said she supported the NFL’s decision to allow 22,000 spectators to the Super Bowl – including 7,500 health workers who received both doses of the vaccine. Raymond James Stadium in Tampa has a capacity of 75,000 seats. During the regular season, the stadium hosted around 14,000 spectators.

And she said she was thrilled that the NFL and the Tampa Bay Super Bowl Host Committee limited official gaming-related events to outdoor activities. The Super Bowl Experience, a seven-day event that features live music, food, drink, and football-themed activities, takes place at several parks along the 2.7-mile Tampa Riverwalk.

Nonetheless, the city will continue to enforce its ordinance on face masks in bars throughout the week, Castor’s spokesperson said. While Gov. Ron DeSantis has not allowed local government to fine customers who do not mask themselves, he can penalize business owners for failing to make customers wear masks.

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Castor signed an executive order on Thursday mandating the use of face masks outdoors in downtown areas and near the designated stadium for Super Bowl-related events.

Face masks will be required to attend the game, as well as for anyone passing through Tampa International Airport. The airport offers covid tests to all visitors who request them.

To be sure, many people in the city are still not following the guidelines to wear masks. City and county officials continue to look for ways to further motivate compliance and the Hillsborough County Commission said in December that only people sitting and eating or drinking in indoor bars or restaurants can remove their masks.

In an interview late last year, Castor, a former police chief, said the city had made the situation work and credited the companies with masks imposed on employees and customers. “We are very happy with the compliance,” she said. “It is unusual to see people without masks inside.”

Tampa, a city of 400,000 people, has recorded more than 57,000 cases of covid-19, according to state data. This places the city fourth in the state behind Miami, Orlando and Jacksonville. About 1,300 people have died from covid-19 in Hillsborough County – nearly 40% of which were staff and residents of nursing homes.

Castor said last year that she would prefer to see bars closed to protect people from transmission of the COVID-19 virus. This does not happen.

The gathering into bars creates a “real petri dish for infection,” she said. His reasoning: People are close together, unable to physically distance each other, and talk loudly to each other while consuming alcohol, further hampering infection control efforts.

Over the summer, she unsuccessfully lobbied Hillsborough County Commissioners to use federal relief money to pay bars to stay closed. The county controlled funding for the CARES Act which came from the federal government.

Next, Castor’s efforts to shut down bars were halted after Florida Governor Ron DeSantis in September removed that power from local governments, along with their ability to enforce mask warrants against patrons.

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Florida has ordered all bars and breweries to close from March through September, with the exception of three weeks in June. DeSantis reopened its bars in September, but only at 50% capacity. A few weeks after his actions, the daily number of new infections across Florida doubled and then tripled.

Castor, a Democrat who left the Republican Party in 2015, said the governor should have left decisions about the pandemic to city and county leaders. Nonetheless, she said she had found other ways to combat the spread of the virus.

She used social media, with the help of health workers and professional athletes, to send the message to residents that they should wear masks and stay physically away from others.

“We are cautiously doing well,” Castor said in a recent interview.

Since the pandemic resulted in restrictions on gatherings of people, the city has canceled or postponed many events. This includes the annual pirate-themed Gasparilla Parade and Festival, which typically draws hundreds of thousands of people; it was moved from January to mid-April.

Castor is confident that the townspeople will act responsibly.

“While I’m aware of covid fatigue, if we can maintain this for a few more months we’ll see the effect of the vaccine and come out of there and save a lot of lives in the process.”

She is convinced the Super Bowl can continue, despite concerns about the spread of covid. “This is our opportunity to do our best on the world stage,” she told reporters, promising the Buccaneers “will be the first team in NFL history to hoist the Lombardi Trophy in our own. court.”

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