Florida sheriff orders his deputies not to wear masks

Marion County Sheriff Billy Woods forbids employees and office visitors from wearing masks. But they can still wear masks at hospitals, schools and the jail.
Marion Sheriff Billy Woods demonstrates using a mask made by county jail inmates in May. The sheriff has ordered his deputies not to weak masks in most circumstances, except for those who work in the jail, at hospitals and schools.
Marion Sheriff Billy Woods demonstrates using a mask made by county jail inmates in May. The sheriff has ordered his deputies not to weak masks in most circumstances, except for those who work in the jail, at hospitals and schools. [ DOUG ENGLE | Ocala Star-Banner ]
Published Aug. 12, 2020|Updated Aug. 12, 2020

As the city of Ocala wrestles with an ordinance requiring face coverings for people inside businesses, Marion County Sheriff Billy Woods told his employees they will not wear masks at work and visitors to his office can’t wear masks either.

Woods, in an email dated Aug. 11, said “my order will stand as is when you are on-duty/working as my employee and representing my Office – masks will not be worn.”

Ocala City Council passed an emergency ordinance last week requiring people to wear masks inside businesses. Mayor Kent Guinn vetoed it Monday and on Wednesday the City Council voted 4-1 to override the veto. The ordinance will go into effect immediately.

Marion County set a single-day record on Tuesday for the most deaths related to COVID-19, with 13 more deaths reported.

Ocala and other municipalities in Marion County also advise officers not to wear masks while on duty so their communication to people they encounter is clear. Nationally, there is no consistent approach. Officers have been disciplined for not following state directives to wear masks, but Florida does not have a state-wide order.

Woods has made some exceptions for officers to wear masks while working at the courthouse, the jail, in public schools, in hospitals and in dealing with people suspected of being infected with COVID-19 or at high risk of complications from the disease.

“For all of these exceptions, the moment that enforcement action is to be taken and it requires you to give an individual orders/commands to comply, the mask will be immediately removed,” Woods said.

Woods said deputies who work special details or special events won’t be allowed to wear masks unless it falls under the exceptions he provided.

“As for special details and/or any special events (paid or not), masks will not be worn. Effective immediately the entity that has requested and has hired a deputy for a special detail will be given clear instruction by Darian Tucker at the time of their written request that masks will not be worn (unless one of the exceptions above applies). In addition, if you are the special detail deputy you will again advise the contact person that a mask will not be worn by you,” according to the email.

The sheriff said if anyone confronts an employee about them not wearing mask, the employee should “politely and professionally tell them I am not required to wear a mask nor will I, per the Order of the Sheriff,” and walk away.

“From that point on it will be my burden and responsibility to take care of the person and answer their problem, complaint or their question,” Woods said.

For those visiting a MCSO office, Woods said “effective immediately, any individual walking in to any one of our lobbies (which includes the main office and all district offices) that is wearing a mask will be asked to remove it.” He added, “in light of the current events when it comes to the sentiment and/or hatred toward law enforcement in our country today, this is being done to ensure there is clear communication and for identification purposes of any individual walking into a lobby.”

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Woods said MCSO lobbies have barriers that protect employees and the visitors. He said “if a person does not wish to remove the mask they will be asked to leave. If the individual is not comfortable with standing and waiting in the lobby with other individuals, politely ask for their cell number and advise them to stand outside or sit in their vehicle and you will text or call them with their completed transaction.”

Woods said the decision was not easy, and pondered on it for the last two weeks.

“We can debate and argue all day of why and why not. The fact is, the amount of professionals that give the reason why we should, I can find the exact same amount of professionals that say why we shouldn’t. Since the beginning of this pandemic the operation of this office has not changed and no wearing of masks has been put in place,” he said.

However, public health officials at local, state and national levels consistently advise that there is clear and mounting evidence that face coverings properly used are among the best methods to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.

Woods said at 900 employees, “our number of cases so far has proven that the current way we are approaching the issue is working.”

At least 36 employees at the Marion County Jail, and seven outside the jail — including patrol officers — have tested positive for COVID-19. More than 200 inmates have tested positive. An infected nurse at the jail recently died.

Woods ended with, “this is no longer a debate nor is it up for discussion. Please keep in mind this entire pandemic is fluid and constantly changing the way things are done. However, my orders will be followed or my actions will be swift to address.”

County Commissioner Carl Zalak told the Star-Banner that he supports Woods’ decision.

“I agree with the Sheriff base on his best judgment and I appreciate the way he handled it,” the commissioner said.

City Councilor Matthew Wardell, who sponsored the city’s face mask ordinance, said while the Sheriff’s Office is Woods domain, he disagrees with his stance on mask.

Ocala Police Chief Greg Graham said the department issues masks to officers but while on duty, he doesn’t expect them to wear masks because he wants their orders to be clearly understood.

Belleview Police Chief Terry Holland also said officers on duty should not wear masks so the lines of communications are clear.

Chief Mike McQuaig of Dunnellon Police Department said he doesn’t require officers to wear a mask in their calls-for-service. He too wants the officers commands to be heard clearly.

Both Holland and McQuaig said officers are given masks. McQuaig said if a store requires an off-duty officer to wear a mask, then it’s the officer’s decision on whether to wear one or not.

Contact Austin L. Miller at (352) 867-4118, or @almillerosb.