Tampa’s Mayor vs. a Covid-Era Super Bowl

With its lively music scene and Ybor City historical district full of bars and restaurants, Tampa has a nightlife hard to beat anywhere in 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 celebrations that mark the Super Bowl would seem to be a logistical headache for Mayor Jane Castor, who sought unsuccessfully last year to close bars in the city to stop the spread of covid-19 and has clashed with the state’s Republican governor about the wisdom of rapidly opening up.

But 11 months into the pandemic, she feels the city and the National Football League have learned enough to hold the event safely — though it will not be exactly normal.

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

Castor said she supports the NFL’s decision to allow 22,000 spectators at the Super Bowl — including 7,500 health workers who have received both doses of the vaccine. The Raymond James Stadium in Tampa has a capacity of 75,000. During the regular season, the stadium allowed about 14,000 fans.

And she said she is pleased the NFL and the Tampa Bay Super Bowl Host Committee limited official events connected with the game to outdoor activities. The Super Bowl Experience, a seven-day event that includes live music, food, beverages and football themed activities, is being held at multiple parks along the 2.7-mile Tampa Riverwalk.

Nonetheless, the city will continue to enforce its face mask ordinance inside bars through the week, said Castor’s spokesperson. While Gov. Ron DeSantis has not allowed the local government to fine customers who don’t mask up, it can penalize business owners for failure to require patrons to wear masks.

On Thursday, Castor signed an executive order mandating the use of face coverings outdoors in areas downtown and near the stadium designated for events tied to the Super Bowl.

Face masks will be required to attend the game, as well as for all those passing through Tampa International Airport. The airport is offering covid testing for any visitors who request it.

To be sure, many people in the city are still bucking the guidance to wear masks. City and county officials continue to look for ways to motivate more compliance and the Hillsborough County commission in December said that only people who are seated 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 has made the situation work and credited businesses with enforcing masks for employees and customers. “We are very happy with compliance,” she said. “It’s unusual to see people without masks inside.”

Tampa, a city of 400,000, has had more than 57,000 covid-19 cases, according to state data. That places the city fourth in the state behind Miami, Orlando and Jacksonville. About 1,300 people have died of covid-19 in Hillsborough County — nearly 40% of whom were nursing home staffers and residents.

Castor last year said she would prefer to see the bars closed to protect people from transmitting the COVID-19 virus. It didn’t happen.

Gathering in bars creates a “veritable petri dish for infection,” she said. Her reasoning: People are in close quarters, unable to physically distance, and talk over one another loudly while consuming alcohol, which further impairs efforts to curb infections.

During the summer, she unsuccessfully lobbied the commissioners of Hillsborough County to use federal covid relief money to pay bars to stay closed. The county controlled the CARES Act funding that came from the federal government.

Then Castor’s efforts to shut bars were stopped after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in September took that power away from local governments, along with their ability to enforce mask mandates against customers.

Florida ordered all bars and breweries to close from March to September, except for three weeks in June. DeSantis reopened bars in September but only to 50% capacity. Within weeks of his actions, the daily number of new infections across Florida doubled and then tripled.

Castor, a Democrat who switched from the Republican Party in 2015, said the governor should have left decisions on the pandemic to city and county leaders. Nonetheless, she said she’s found other ways to fight the spread of the virus.

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

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

Since the pandemic led to restrictions on people gathering, the city has canceled or rescheduled many events. This includes the annual pirate-themed Gasparilla parade and festival, which usually attracts hundreds of thousands of people; it’s been moved from January to mid-April.

Castor is confident city residents will act responsibly.

“While I am aware of covid fatigue, if we can keep this up for another couple of months, we will see the effect of the vaccine and come out from under this and save a lot of lives in the process.”

She is confident that the Super Bowl can go on, despite concerns about the spread of covid. “This is our opportunity to put our best foot forward on the world stage,” she told reporters, promising that the Buccaneers “will be the first team in NFL history to hoist the Lombardi trophy in our own backyard.”

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