By LINDA CHION KENNEY
Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill and County Commissioner Stacy White fielded questions about the coronavirus pandemic, including small business issues and reopening considerations, in an online meeting with Greater Riverview Chamber of Commerce members May 12.
Key points included the $256 million in federal CARES Act funds the county is set to receive, which Merrill said would be distributed from “two large buckets,” one labeled “life and safety” and the other “business recovery,” dealing with individual unemployment and small business aid, respectively. That would include as well nonprofit businesses, Merrill said.
Merrill said an online portal to apply for those funds was expected to be up and running by week’s end on the government’s website, HCFLGov.net.
The county administrator also discussed the work of the Hillsborough County Emergency Policy Group (EPG), and its unique stature in the state. Under state law, the directives of the state office of emergency management passes down to the county level, where traditionally boards of county commissioners take action.
The Hillsborough board, through ordinance, has passed that authority on to the eight-member EPG, which is comprised of the sheriff, the school board chair, the chair and vice chair of the board of county commissioners and the three elected mayors, representing the cities of Plant City, Tampa and Temple Terrace.
The District 1 commissioner fills the eighth seat, primarily because the district’s boundaries include Tampa Bay coastal areas, which are key considerations for hurricane preparedness and recovery.
White acknowledged in response to a question that the Greater Riverview and Greater Brandon areas are not necessarily represented on the EPG, unless the sheriff, vice chair and chairs live in the area themselves. However, there is some representation, as the District 1 seat, held now by Sandra Murman, crosses into the south county area.
“You’re right, the three cities get automatic representation on the EPG,” White said. But EPG rules “can change at any time,” he added, through the required public hearing process. “I’m convinced that there are potentially multiple [considerations] that can work,” he added. “I’m all ears.”
Meanwhile, the EPG in these unprecedented times has been meeting twice weekly to address issues related to COVID-19, including testing, shutdowns and reopening. The executive order signed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, if necessary, “does allow for counties to be more restrictive with openings,” Merrill said.
The EPG also has the authority to declare a countywide state of emergency, which opens the door to Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funding. The declaration is good for seven days unless it is reinstated, which has been the case over the past two months during these pandemic times.
Merrill, who advises the EPG, said the group has hired a company to perform a countywide survey that is being conducted via telephone, online and through social media platforms.
To date, there have been 12,000 responses, “which is huge and very statistically relevant,” he said.
At last count, 85 percent of those respondents were aware of testing and how to be tested, Merrill said, adding the reason respondents gave for not being tested is that they didn’t feel sick. He noted, too, that the majority of respondents recognize the importance of wearing masks and that they intended to do so.
Merrill said it’s been a couple weeks since county officials reopened hiking and biking trails in county parks and that staff is putting in place a myriad of things necessary before a resumption of additional park activities. “It’s amazing how many things there are [to consider], that you took for granted in the days before COVID-19,” he said.
As for summer camps and youth sports programming, the issues under consideration involve “keeping your distance” and “making sure things are sanitized,” Merrill said.
“It’s no big secret what’s [going to be] difficult,” Merrill said, in reference to keeping children focused on safety measures and ensuring their compliance.
As for business owners reopening and the customers they serve, the rules can be just as hard to follow and enforce, yet they are ever more imperative, Merrill said, noting “we still don’t have the level of testing we need, which is the only way to really understand how safe we are to continue reopening.”
Likening reopening to a “dial that you turn” rather than a “switch you turn on or off,” Merrill added that “it’s imperative to be thinking about the things we do outside of the home and the ramifications that could have when you bring [your exposure] back to the family at home.”
“That’s the best reason you have,” Merrill said, for keeping your distance and wearing your mask.
For more information, about the EPG, COVID-19 news and directives, the countywide survey and local CARES funding, visit Hillsborough County government online at HCFLGov.net. To reach Commissioner White’s office, call: 813-272-5740.