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An expert explains what an 'agricultural quarantine' means amid pandemic confusion

Close-up of a snail with a brown cone-shaped shell and white flesh on a black surface leaving a wet trail behind it.
Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services
Some giant African land snails collected in the quarantined area of New Port Richey have been confirmed by a UF/IFAS official in Pasco County to carry rat lungworm, which can cause meningitis in people.

With Oriental fruit flies in Pinellas County and giant African land snails in Pasco County, the greater Tampa Bay region has a couple quarantined zones. But what does that mean exactly and how is it enforced?

Two areas within the greater Tampa Bay region are in quarantine right now, and it's not because of COVID-19.

Oriental fruit flies were recently discovered in some Pinellas County traps. They infest and ruin more than 430 kinds of produce. And in Pasco County, a resident reported giant African land snails, or GALS, in their garden last month. They consume about 500 plant species and the stucco off houses, while carrying a parasite that's harmful to people.

WUSF's Jessica Meszaros spoke about invasive species quarantine with the Pasco County director of the UF/IFAS Extension, Whitney Elmore.

What exactly does it mean for an area to be under quarantine?

Elmore: So, that's a really good question. And I mean, following the heels here of a pandemic, you know, the term quarantine has been used a lot. And that's led to quite a bit of confusion when it comes to a quarantine for an invasive pest. So, they are two really totally different things.

This particular quarantine means that plant materials, specifically plant soil, yard debris, construction materials, those kinds of things cannot be moved out of or through this quarantine zone that's been set up because it could very easily pick up parts of the snails and be able to carry it to other locations.

So, that quarantine doesn't mean that people and their pets cannot move in and out of the quarantine zone, but I will say there are a couple of things that people should know. You could purchase plants if you lived in this quarantine zone and bring them to your house and plant them. If you're buying from a reputable nursery that happens to be in a quarantine zone, they are under compliance. They are working very closely with division of plant industry to make sure that their products are safe to be sold into the community. So, it's perfectly safe to go to those establishments in a quarantine zone.

And if you were to buy a plant and you wanted to give it to a friend, and you lived in that quarantine zone, you cannot take it home with you and then take it back out of that quarantine zone, even if it was for a day … and even if you brought it into your house.

How is the quarantine enforced? Is an area like blocked off with police tape and guarded by law enforcement, or are their just signs in place and it's like a trust system?

Elmore: No, it very much is a trust system. The folks in the area, they do have to be basically willing to allow the Division of Plant Industry to come into their property and survey. They will work with them individually to ensure that they're in compliance. They explained the process very quickly, but it's not cordoned off or, or anything like that. Normal activities take place.

We're just very concerned with the building materials and the plant material that could come out. There's very little, if any, disturbance to the residents in those particular locations. You know, they may see the dogs — they have sniffer dogs. They're out there pretty much every day surveying and looking for more. So, you may see some of those activities, but as far as a citizen, there's nothing for them to be concerned about.

Great. Is there anything else we haven't talked about that you wanted to mention before we conclude?

Elmore: I think it's important to mention that folks shouldn't be out destroying their snails. We have lots of natives. We have lots of beneficial snails. And just because you see a snail doesn't mean it's a bad snail. They can always just take a picture. One of the absolute best tools we have at this point time is a smartphone to take a picture and send an email instantaneously and we can get an identification in a matter of minutes or hours.

Since 2012, I’ve been a voice on public radio stations across Florida - in Miami, Fort Myers, and now Tampa.