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Pinellas County to require face coverings in businesses

Businesses and customers in Pinellas could face a civil citation of $100 for a first violation.

On Tuesday, Pinellas County became the latest government in the Tampa Bay area to require face coverings when people conduct business indoors in public spaces.

Starting Wednesday at 5 p.m., all people will be required to wear face coverings while in any indoor establishment in Pinellas County. The countywide ordinance will be active as long as a local emergency order remains in place.

“We have been hearing from our doctors quite a bit,” Commissioner Dave Eggers said about the uptick in COVID-19 cases. “We have to start planning now for what could happen in two or three weeks. We have to act now.”

With Kathleen Peters being the lone dissenter, the commission voted six to one to enact the ordinance. The discussion and debate lasted six hours.

Businesses and customers in Pinellas could face a civil citation of $100 for a first offense, $250 for a second and $500 for a third, according to the ordinances. Pinellas joined Hillsborough and Pasco counties, Tampa and St. Petersburg in approving mandatory mask orders in the past week.

County Administrator Barry Burton said that everyone was excited to open businesses back up after a weeks-long shutdown, but people are now ignoring the pandemic and returning to normal times. That can’t happen when COVID-19 cases continue to rise, he said.

“We are clearly seeing a community-wide spread,” said Dr. Ulyee Choe, director of the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County. “It’s not really confined to one particular age group. There is no cure. There is no vaccine.”

Related: Pasco adopts face mask requirements to combat COVID-19

Masks must be worn with social distancing “if we want to get the biggest bang for the buck” with face coverings, Choe said during the virtual meeting.

Dr. Jon Thogmartin, the chief medical examiner for Pinellas and Pasco counties, told commissioners he supports wearing masks in public, adding: “If we use our brains and common courtesy, we could beat this thing.”

Each of three proposed versions of an ordinance targeted bars, requiring them to limit large crowds indoors. Burton said the best way to enforce the measure in bars is to require that customers be seated to receive service, rather than setting capacity requirements.

The masks help slow the spread of the coronavirus, public and health officials say. Florida’s running total of positive infections jumped to 103,506 on Tuesday. The overall death toll in Florida sits at 3,333.

Related: Hillsborough approves mask order for businesses

The ordinance provides exemptions to not wearing mask in some instances, according to the county. Those include:

  • The mandate cannot conflict with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
  • It does not apply if a person is strictly adhering to social distancing where 10 or fewer people in a location are also maintaining social distancing.
  • It does not apply to governmental entities such as schools, courthouses or city halls. Those entities are encouraged to develop procedures to protect employees and the public.
  • If a person is under 18, that person’s use of a face covering is left to the discretion of that person’s parent, guardian or an accompanying adult.
  • Religious rituals such as various forms of singing are permitted provided that social distancing is strictly maintained.
  • Exercising while social distancing, such as in a gym, is permitted without a face covering

Here are the requirements for bars and restaurants:

  • Restaurant and bar staff must wear a face covering while on duty and while directly or indirectly preparing food or beverage, or serving food or beverage, or having customer contact, regardless of where the food or beverage is being prepared or whether the customers are inside or outside. Customers can remove their face coverings while dining or consuming a beverage when seated and social distancing.
  • Restaurants and bars must position chairs and tables so that parties of one or more are separated by six feet and patrons are not standing at the bar or congregating in any area.
  • Retail employees must wear face coverings unless working in an area of the business that is not open to the customers and has social distancing measures in place.

As deaths continue to climb, Pinellas County added 13 coronavirus deaths Tuesday among the 67 deaths recorded statewide. Overall, Pinellas has recorded 131 COVID-19 deaths, according to the state Department of Health. Nearly 75 percent of those deaths can be tied to long-term care facilities.

A Publix worker collects shopping carts in the parking lot of a store in South Pasadena in April. The worker wears a mask due to the coronavirus pandemic. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]

The ordinance passed Tuesday puts the enforcement responsibility on owners, managers and employees to “ensure that every individual in that establishment complies” with the rules.

Commissioner Charlie Justice raised questions about who would enforce the order on businesses. Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said that “everybody has to be responsible — the businesses, the employees, the patrons.” He said the establishments don’t have to let people in without masks, adding: “It’s a serious issue. It’s moving in the wrong direction.”

As the debate over wearing face coverings turns political, more than 1,100 people emailed commissioners to express either support or disdain over the ordinances. The public left nearly 7,200 comments on the county’s Facebook page during the meeting.

The majority of the 100 people who addressed commissioners urged them to forgo the requirement. Many blamed the media for creating hysteria; supporters said masks will keep people safe.

Dr. Elena Levine of Dunedin implored commissioners to adopt the mask requirement, saying: “This is nothing like we have ever seen before. The commission needs to do what it can to stop the carnage. We have a right to breathe safe air.”

But others disagreed.

“When does the nanny state end?” asked Vanessa Alabarces of St. Pete Beach. “We can minimize risk, but we can’t stop it. We’re not at the place where hospitals are being overwhelmed.”

Also on Tuesday, Lourdes Benedict, an assistant county administrator, said that at least nine employees in the county’s 911 dispatch center had tested positive for the coronavirus. Of the more than 200 employees who work in the dispatch center, at least 20 have been under a two-week quarantine at some point during the pandemic, Benedict said. The positive tests or the quarantines have caused service disruptions, she said.

On Monday, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman signed a mandatory mask order, requiring all patrons to wear a mask inside enclosed businesses. That order became moot after the commission passed the ordinance.

• • •

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