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How mask mandates are playing out in Florida’s 2020 elections

Wearing a mask - or not - has become a flash point in public discourse. It's unclear how big of an issue it will be for in-person voting.

Aletris Farnam doesn’t want anyone to be deterred from voting.

That’s why the Glades County Supervisor of Elections is moving her lone early voting site to a building across the street this year.

The county courthouse, which normally hosts early voting, requires everyone who enters to wear a mask, Farnam explained.

“If you want to wear a mask, by all means, wear a mask,” Farnam said. But, she added, “I don’t want to infringe on their rights if they don’t want to wear a mask.”

With about a month to go before in-person voting starts for Florida’s Aug. 18 primary, the state’s 67 elections supervisors are planning for the coronavirus pandemic.

Among the issues they must consider: what to do about voters and masks.

Wearing a mask — or not — has become a flash point, with disputes and confrontations involving the use of masks flaring on social feeds across the nation.

While experts say a mask could help slow the transmission of the highly contagious disease, some people resist being told to wears masks, viewing such a directive, especially from government, as an intrusion on their personal liberties.

Related: Masks are dividing Florida's Republican leaders as coronavirus outbreak spreads

Surging coronavirus case numbers in Florida in recent weeks have prompted some county and local municipalities to enact mandatory mask-wearing ordinances, leading to a patchwork of rules across the state and even within counties.

Related: Where do I have to wear a mask in Tampa Bay?

It’s unclear, though, how the debate and even local ordinances could play out at in-person voting sites come Florida’s Aug. 18 primary or the November general election.

Elections officials around the state are requiring masks and sometimes face shields for their elections workers. They’re offering hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes. Some are planning to give voters their own pens and disposable privacy sleeves, or regularly spraying cleaning solutions in polling places.

The Pinellas County Supervisors of Elections office is bulk-buying masks to provide for voters who may arrive to in-person voting without one.

“We want voters to protect themselves and their poll workers,” said Dustin Chase, spokesman for the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections office.

But when asked about a current county requirement for face coverings to be used inside all indoor establishments, Chase said his office does not plan to enforce that masks be worn in order for people to be able to vote.

“Voters have a constitutional right to cast a ballot and that would supersede any… ordinance,” Chase said.

Chase said his office is training poll workers not to argue with or get confrontational with voters. “Elections are emotional experiences as it is,” Chase said.

In Hillsborough County, the supervisor of elections office said it was reviewing its county’s mask order to figure how it may apply to government locations and voting.

“We will not prohibit any registered voter from exercising their right to vote,” said spokeswoman Gerri Kramer. She said her office is not likely to provide any guidance until closer to the election, noting that the county’s ordinance is being reviewed week to week.

The question of mask requirements in polling places brings up an interesting question of public health versus the right to vote, said Marcia Johnson-Blanco, co-director of the voting rights project with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

She said she plans to ask elections officials about how they plan to handle the issue in November.

“It’s such a shame that mask-wearing has become this wedge issue,” Johnson-Blanco said. “You do see instances where, depending on where you are on the mask divide, there are people who are wearing masks and yelling at people who are not, and people who are insisting on their right to not do so. I would hate to see that friction play out in line on Election Day.”

Johnson-Blanco noted that in-person voting is not voters’ only option. In Florida, roughly a third of voters have voted by mail in recent years, and elections officials and others have been aggressively promoting that option this year amid the coronavirus.

Ryan Barack, a Clearwater attorney who has done work in election law, said a reasonable, limited restriction that mandated people wear masks in polling places could be enforceable.

And Florida is certainly not alone in having to answer this question.

The Washington, D.C., Board of Elections mandated mask-wearing for in-person voting in its June 2 primary.

There were no issues with the mandate, LaDawne White, spokesperson for the D.C. Board of Elections, said this week.

“People arrived to vote with their masks,” White said. “If for some reason they did not, they were provided one.”

Still, the question of mandating masks and other public health initiatives amid the pandemic is a tricky one for elections officials.

Some of the polling places in Leon County are planning to require temperature checks for the primary election, said deputy supervisor Chris Moore.

Moore said the supervisor of elections office is going to work with those locations to follow their requirements.

He said his office needs those polling locations, especially as his county has already lost a few locations that no longer wanted to host voters amid the coronavirus or that did not have adequate space for social distancing.

“We don’t want to get into a tug-of-war with our polling locations about COVID requirements when we’ve already seen some attrition and we still have a month to go,” Moore said.

The Leon County Supervisor of Elections office also does not anticipate turning voters away if they violate the county’s mask ordinance, Moore said.

“Enforcing the mask requirement is not our primary responsibility,” Moore said. “It’s getting people ballots and helping them to vote.” He said he hopes voters seeing others all wearing masks will help apply some peer pressure to get people to comply. He noted there are civil fines that can be imposed under his county’s ordinance.

Moore said some details are still being worked out, such as whether it would be the job of elections workers to do the temperature checks, and what would happen next if a voter’s temperature is above the threshold.

“You try to put yourself in the feet of the voter,” Moore said. “What do we think is fair and what do we think is legal?”

• • •

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