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Pinellas County inches closer to requiring face masks

The County Commission will consider a proposed ordinance on Tuesday.

Alarmed by the skyrocketing coronavirus cases, the Pinellas County Commission on Thursday directed the county administrator and county attorney to craft an ordinance that would require people to wear face masks in public.

County Administrator Barry Burton and County Attorney Jewel White will work to spell out who will be required to wear masks — the public at large, for instance, or only employees in a business who interact with customers. The commission is expected to consider the proposed ordinance on Tuesday.

During a two-hour debate about the “alarming rate” of COVID-19 spreading among people between the ages of 25 and 34, Burton and Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said that some bars, clubs and restaurants are ignoring capacity orders and packing patrons inside their businesses. Those businesses need to be targeted for enforcement, the duo said.

“They were jammed up on the dance floor like it’s spring break again,” Burton said about a photo reportedly taken at Ringside Cafe on Saturday in St. Petersburg. “These bar owners have to be responsible, or we need to take additional action.”

When restaurants and some bars opened back up last month, the rules required them to operate first at 25 percent of their allowed capacity and then at 50 percent, if they sold food. Many larger clubs and bars, however, have ignored the rules and are holding dance parties and concerts, officials said.

Commission Chair Pat Gerard said the board needed to act on Thursday, adding: “People are not being responsible. Business owners are not being responsible.”

Added Commissioner Janet Long: “As leaders in this community, we have a responsibility to do something.”

Related: Florida sees record 3,207 new coronavirus cases, with new highs for Tampa Bay

On Thursday, Florida again passed a record for the most single-day coronavirus cases, adding 3,207 new infections and bringing the state total to 85,926.

About 21 percent of those new cases came out of the Tampa Bay area. Hillsborough and Pinellas County both had record-high, single-day case numbers, Hillsborough with 337 and Pinellas with 203. Before the recent drastic increases, Burton said the county was adding about 30 to 50 cases a day.

Health professionals, including Dr. Larry Feinman, chief medical officer for 18 HCA hospitals in west Florida, pushed for a mask requirement.

He implored commissioners to require people to wear masks when they are inside public spaces. People have a three times greater chance of dying from COVID-19 than during open heart surgery, Feinman said, adding that he is more “terrified” to walk through a Publix grocery store than through any of the 15 COVID-19 units in the chain’s hospitals.

“I’m begging you to mandate masking,” Feinmann said. “It is effective.”

Dr. Ulyee Choe, director of the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County, said recent studies are “showing the masks are effective” in fighting the virus.

“We don’t have a lot of tools in the tool kits, except the masks and social distancing,” Choe said. “We’re only at the second inning of this.”

Commissioner Charlie Justice asked Choe whether contact tracing was still effective since rising numbers make it harder for public health officials to track people and find others who may have been infected. “It’s going to be more limited,” Choe replied.

The health professionals, Burton and several commissioners fear the the number of positive cases will increase even more in the coming month because hundreds of people have been protesting and marching about police brutality locally for more than two weeks.

Gualtieri urged the commission to “sharpen” any requirement that would force problem businesses to comply with a “simple” rule.

A “broad ordinance” could be difficult to enforce, like when the state and county tried to define “essential businesses,” Gualtieri said. He said his phones will “blow up” if any ordinance is not clear.

Several commissioners asked Gualtieri if he would enforce a mask order.

“I’m not giving somebody a criminal arrest record for not wearing a mask,” Gualtieri said.

The sheriff said business owners need to step up and be “gate-keepers” when the establishments fill up. He said he will not send teams of deputies to reduce crowds inside clubs and bars because he doesn’t need deputies using force when the crowds get out of hand, adding: “I’m not picking up a bunch of drunks.”

Commissioner Ken Welch compared the debate over masks to a hurricane when some members of the public refuse to believe a storm is approaching. A countywide requirement would help drive the positive numbers down, he said. He pushed for a civil fine if people don’t comply with a mask requirement.

“We’ve got a problem here,” Welch said. “If we don’t act with masks, what will we do here? We have the authority to put the force of law behind a mask requirement.”

On Wednesday, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman announced that businesses must require their employees to wear masks when they’re in areas open to the public, starting Friday at 5 p.m. Those include restaurants, bars, gyms, retail shops, entertainment establishments and personal services businesses such as salons and barber shops.

Meanwhile, Justice questioned whether any ordinance should be staggered, first to require only employees to wear masks, then later to require members of the public to wear masks. Commissioner Kathleen Peters questioned who would pay for people to acquire masks and whether the order would be enforced.

“We’re going to put this on people who can’t afford them,” Peters said. “I got problems with making laws that won’t be enforced.”

St. Petersburg resident Trevor Burgess told commissioners to act.

“If the national and state leadership will not protect us, you must,” Burgess said. “You don’t have time to take baby steps.”

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