Tampa mayor battled Florida governor over COVID-19 issues in buildup to Super Bowl 55

Boasting a lively music scene and 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 Feb. 7 – as the site of Super Bowl 55 and the first city to host its own football team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, in the championship game.

The expected arrival of thousands of 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 to stop the spread of COVID-19 and clashed with the state’s Republican governor about the wisdom of rapidly opening.

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Castor said the city and NFL 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 news 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 received both doses of a vaccine. Raymond James Stadium in Tampa has a capacity of 75,000. During the regular season, the stadium allowed about 14,000 fans.

Castor 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, will take place at multiple parks along the 2.7-mile Tampa Riverwalk.

Castor’s spokesperson said that during Super Bowl week, the city will enforce its face mask ordinance inside bars. Though Gov. Ron DeSantis has not allowed local governments to fine customers who don’t mask up, business owners can be fined for failing to require patrons to wear masks.

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 offers coronavirus testing for any visitors who request it.

Many people in the city buck the guidance to wear masks. City and county officials look for ways to motivate more compliance, and the Hillsborough County Commission said in December that only people who are eating or drinking in indoor bars or restaurants can remove their masks.

In an interview late last year, Castor, a former police chief, 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 56,000 COVID-19 cases, according to state data. That places the city fourth in the state behind Miami, Orlando and Jacksonville. About 1,200 people have died of COVID-19 in Hillsborough County – 40% of whom were nursing home staffers and residents.

Castor said last year that 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. During the summer, she unsuccessfully lobbied the commissioners of Hillsborough County to use federal COVID-19 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 had 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, then tripled.

Castor has 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. “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 the Super Bowl can go on successfully, despite COVID-19 concerns.

“This is our opportunity to put our best foot forward on the world stage,” she said.

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a nonprofit, editorially independent program of KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation) that is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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