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When should Pinellas lift its mask mandate?

As fatigue grows over mask requirements, the Pinellas County Commission on Thursday decided to wait to discuss a vote on lifting the requirement until gathering more data.
Hostess Sarah Wilson (left) welcomes Jessica Rajcula, 29, of Dunedin and Amber Catanzaro, 32, of Clearwater, at Palm Pavillion Beachside Grill & Bar, on Monday, Sept. 28, 2020 in Clearwater.
Hostess Sarah Wilson (left) welcomes Jessica Rajcula, 29, of Dunedin and Amber Catanzaro, 32, of Clearwater, at Palm Pavillion Beachside Grill & Bar, on Monday, Sept. 28, 2020 in Clearwater. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published Apr. 8
Updated Apr. 8

Nearly 10 months after Pinellas County enacted a mask mandate to stem the spread of coronavirus, commissioners Dave Eggers and Kathleen Peters said Thursday it’s past the time to schedule a vote on whether to end it.

Peters argued the increase of positive cases over the last month is not enough to cause alarm considering what it could have been with the influx of tourists at the height of Spring Break. According to the Florida Department of Health, the weekly positivity rate was 6.7 percent on Wednesday, compared with 5 percent a month earlier. Peters, however, cited conflicting numbers and later did not respond to a question asking about her source.

“I really believe the frustration in the community is so high, the fatigue is so high, many people are not adhering to the rules anyway,” Peters said at Thursday’s commission work session.

Eggers proposed the Commission schedule a vote for April 27 on the mask mandate, which requires face coverings in most indoor public places, including at restaurants while patrons are not eating and drinking. But the majority of commissioners urged caution in lifting the safeguard as governments across Tampa Bay examine their own mask mandates.

The Pinellas County Commission is scheduled to discuss coronavirus trends at its meeting Tuesday, along with comparative data from other counties with mask mandates across the state.

Commissioners agreed to decide whether to schedule a vote on the mask mandate after their discussion of the data on Tuesday. The mask ordinance adopted June 23 will remain in place until a vote passes to lift it. The local state of emergency, which allows the county to tap into federal reimbursements and expedite use of resources, has been in place since March 2020 and is a separate motion that requires weekly renewal.

“Any decision that I make regarding the health and safety of individuals in our county, I think should be factually based, not emotionally based,” commissioner Rene Flowers said.

Pasco County administrator Dan Biles ended that government’s mask mandate on Monday, a day that recorded 107 new cases with three new hospitalizations and no reported deaths. On Wednesday, the Hillsborough County Commission did not discuss its mask ordinance as it reviewed data showing the county’s cases grew by more than 3,000 between March 31 and April 6.

In February, 18 medical professionals from Tampa Bay hospitals, health centers and university programs, provided a joint letter of advice urging local governments maintain the mask requirements until Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties hit a seven-day average positivity rate of 3 percent or less for four consecutive weeks.

They also encouraged enforcement of the mask requirements until there is no more than an average of 45 new cases a day in Hillsborough, 14 new cases a day in Pasco and 30 new cases a day in Pinellas.

“Facial coverings are essential in the mitigation of transmission, especially while the virus remains active in our communities,” the letter states. “Facial coverings are in fact the strongest protection found to date to mitigate the spread of the virus.”

Pressure from anti-mask advocates has remained steady on the commission, including this week, when commissioner Charlie Justice said he was not swayed by the 145 emails that came in, many “full of vitriol, full of incorrect information” and “just flat-out lies.”

“Citizens across Pinellas are angry and upset,” Largo resident Aden Lynn Barnes wrote in an email to the commission on Tuesday. “Is it really worth losing your positions as commissioners to prolong this any further?”

Commissioner Janet Long rejected what she called false claims from anti-mask advocates accusing the elected officials receiving “tens of thousands of dollars” from the Democratic National Convention and other partisan groups to keep the mandates.

She said police have been taking an educational approach to enforcement instead of making mass arrests or giving citations to violators, which should make the rule that much easier to voluntarily follow.

“We’re not Pasco County and we’re not Manatee County,” Long said. “We have a huge influx of folks from outside our county coming in and out of our county every day, and while the numbers are up like they are, I have no intention of placing my vote to remove the mask mandate.”