Tampa’s mayor vs. a COVID-era Super Bowl: Jane Castor’s confident it can be held safely
‘We are making sure this is a safe event for everyone,” says Castor, who pushed unsuccessfully last year to shut down bars to fight the spread of the coronavirus.
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 has a big reason to party 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 arrival of thousands of fans and the usual celebrations that mark the Super Bowl would seem 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 coronavirus pandemic, Castor says the city and the National Football League have learned enough to hold the event safely.
“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 told reporters. “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. Raymond James Stadium in Tampa has a capacity of 75,000. During the regular season, about 14,000 fans were allowed in.
Castor said she’s 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 with live music, food, beverages and football-themed activities, is being held at parks along the 2.7-mile Tampa Riverwalk.
Still, the city is continuing to enforce its face-mask ordinance inside bars, Castor’s spokesperson said. While Gov. Ron DeSantis hasn’t allowed the city to fine customers who don’t mask up, Tampa can penalize business owners for failure to require patrons to wear masks.
Castor signed an executive order mandating the use of face coverings outdoors in areas downtown and near the stadium designated for Super Bowl events.
Masks are required at the game and for all passing through Tampa International Airport, which is offering COVID testing for any who request it.
Many are bucking the guidance to wear masks. City and county officials continue to look for ways to motivate compliance. 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.
Tampa, a city of 400,000, has had more than 57,000 COVID cases — fourth in Florida behind Miami, Orlando and Jacksonville. About 1,300 people have died of COVID in Hillsborough County — nearly 40% who were nursing-home staffers or residents.
Castor last year said she’d prefer to see bars closed to protect people. That didn’t happen.
Gathering in bars creates a “veritable petri dish for infection,” Castor 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.
Last summer, she unsuccessfully lobbied Hillsborough County to use federal relief money to pay bars to stay closed.
Castor’s efforts to shut bars were stopped after DeSantis took that power away from local governments in September, 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 at 50% capacity. Within weeks, the daily number of new infections across Florida doubled, 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.
But she said she’s found ways to fight the spread of the virus. She used social media and the help of health workers and professional athletes to send the message that people should wear masks and stay physically distanced.
“We are doing cautiously OK,” Castor said.
Since the pandemic led to restrictions on people gathering, the city has canceled or rescheduled many events — including the annual pirate-themed Gasparilla parade and festival, which attracts hundreds of thousands of people and has been moved from January to mid-April.
Castor is confident Tampa 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.”
KHN (Kaiser Health News) is an editorially independent, nonprofit news service covering health issues.