ST. PETERSBURG — With cases of the coronavirus on the rise across Florida and a vaccine still months away for the vast majority of people, city leaders on Monday unveiled a new messaging campaign to encourage residents, businesses and patrons to stay focused on mitigating the spread of COVID-19.
The new campaign, “Race to Safe,” challenges St. Petersburg and Pinellas County to be the safest community in the state where the coronavirus is concerned. Pinellas County already has the lowest rate of positivity among the state’s 10 most populated counties, despite also being the mostly densely populated.
“It’s time we recommit ourselves, and to make good, smart, healthy choices,” said Mayor Rick Kriseman, who announced the initiative Monday morning on the steps of City Hall. “This isn’t about politics, it isn’t about posturing. It’s about public health, it’s about saving lives.”
The shift in messaging doesn’t come with any new restrictions or ramped up enforcement — yet. It’s in reaction to a perceived sense of complacency, as businesses have skirted rules on distancing and mask wearing, and as news of impending vaccines have sparked optimism even though they will remain inaccessible to most for many months. Kriseman said if after a few weeks of the campaign, the county’s two-week average positivity doesn’t dip below 5 percent, more measures may come.
“We’re hoping we don’t have to do additional restrictions,” he said.
The mayor characterized the virus as something St. Petersburg and Pinellas County had under control before losing their grip. The county’s average biweekly positivity, once down below 3 percent; is now up near 6 percent. For that, he blamed Gov. Ron DeSantis, who in September took the state into the third phase of the reopening. That order prevented municipalities from enforcing local mask measures against individuals, and it also removed virtually every statewide mitigation measure.
On Monday, Florida saw 7,711 new cases and 106 new deaths, the most ever deaths recorded on a Monday, according to the Florida Department of Health. Pinellas County had 303 new cases and five new deaths.
“The state’s phase 3 reopening, and the sudden inability to enforce our individual mask mandate, as well as the confusion that followed, proved to be too much, even for our community,” Kriseman said.
DeSantis’ order did not, however, prevent cities and counties from enforcing ordinances against businesses. Countywide orders remain in effect, and officials can cite restaurants and bars who shirk mask and distancing requirements. At a news conference last week, Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said his deputies have witnesses blatant violations and officers would be reminding business owners of their obligations.
Race to Safe works in tandem with that effort, the goal of both being an increase in compliance.
But the initiatives come at a particularly dangerous moment: the virus numbers may not yet reflect spread associated with Thanksgiving travel. And Christmas is now less than three weeks away. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has advised against holiday travel.
Kriseman implored people to play it safe during the holiday season, reconsidering hosting or attending gatherings and hosting office parties over Zoom. Celebrate wisely, he advised, so that you’re around to celebrate next year.
The mayor hoped appealing to his residents’ competitive spirit might help them refocus on the virus.
“We’re challenging, in a different way, our residents,” Kriseman said. “It’s a little different way of going at it. Instead of just asking people to do the right thing, we want to challenge them to take part in this race.”
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