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Police officers gear up for safety. Why doesn’t that include masks?

Public health officials say masks are crucial to containing COVID-19. But a Florida sheriff is the latest in law enforcement to resist using them. Why is that?
A group of over 200 people gathered June 2 to protest against police brutality on U.S. 301 in Riverview. But the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office deputies on the left were not wearing masks.
A group of over 200 people gathered June 2 to protest against police brutality on U.S. 301 in Riverview. But the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office deputies on the left were not wearing masks. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Aug. 15, 2020

This time it wasn’t a president, a senator or even a governor whose opposition to wearing masks drew national media attention and the dismay of public health officials, who say face coverings are necessary to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

This time it was a Florida sheriff.

Marion County Sheriff Billy Woods announced this week that his deputies — save for those in schools, hospitals, the jail and the courthouse — were not to mask up on duty. He even banned visitors to his agency’s offices from wearing masks, as the Ocala Star-Banner first reported, but later walked that back.

A top public safety officer opposing what experts say is the best public safety option to contain the COVID-19 pandemic neatly captures how masks have become another battle in the culture wars.

Related: Face masks: Read the latest on guidelines, tips for comfort and long-term wear

That tension is on constant display in Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis opposes a statewide mask order but encourages their use.

It is also on display on TV and on social media, where unmasked law enforcement officers have been spotted through the summer protests. An Oregon state trooper was placed on leave after refusing to wear a mask in a coffee shop. Cops in Chicago and Philadelphia continued to go bare-faced despite orders from city officials.

In June, a New York Times headline asked: “Why are so many NYPD officers refusing to wear masks at protests?

Tampa Bay’s law enforcement agencies gives officers guidance about when to use masks — but also leaves that decision up to them.

Related: Policing in the time of coronavirus: Tampa Bay cops share their stories

But Jay Wolfson, a professor at the University of South Florida’s College of Public Health, wonders if that sends the right signal to a society struggling to contain a deadly pandemic.

“Police officers need to be emblematic of the values of our society … protecting the health and safety of our communities and serving as a role model for doing that,” he said. “I think public agencies in particular, and public officials, whether they’re elected or appointed, need to be examples of what leadership means in a crisis situation, and we’re in a crisis situation.”

Wolfson understands that officers have concerns about masks hindering communication or obscuring their identities. But he said inconsistent mask use among officers could be hazardous to all — their constant public interactions both exposes them to COVID-19 and will expose others — and sends mixed messages about health and safety to the public.

St. Petersburg Police Chief Anthony Holloway wears a mask while speaking to protestors outside City Hall on June 6.
St. Petersburg Police Chief Anthony Holloway wears a mask while speaking to protestors outside City Hall on June 6. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

The St. Petersburg Police Department’s mask policies are among the strictest in the region. In a July 1 email, Police Chief Anthony Holloway told employees they’re required to wear masks on duty, though they can remove them for “officer safety purposes.” That means there are case-by-case exceptions for taking the masks off, a police spokeswoman said.

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Similarly, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office requires deputies to wear masks “when closely interacting with the public,” a spokeswoman said.

The Tampa Police Department and the Pasco and Pinellas County Sheriff’s Offices say employees are told to follow local ordinances.

Pinellas says it suggests deputies follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, which encourage mask usage in all public settings in addition to social distancing, and that it distributes masks to its deputies.

Though those ordinances generally require mask usage inside businesses and public buildings, they don’t offer guidance for most of the places officers will find themselves: on streets and sidewalks, at private residences and countless driver’s side windows of stopped motorists.

Related: The most comfortable face masks? A Tampa Bay panel tested a variety.

The Florida Highway Patrol said it follows the Centers for Disease Control guidelines for law enforcement, which are similar to the usual advice (wash hands, wear masks, stay 6-feet apart) but also warns officers to only let first-responders wearing personal protective gear deal with a COVID-19 patient. Those haven’t been updated since March 12, however.

The Hernando County Sheriff’s Office lets its deputies wear masks if they want to, a spokeswoman said, but doesn’t require them under any circumstances. She did not respond to follow-up questions about why the agency doesn’t have a mask policy.

The pandemic has not left these agencies untouched. In Hillsborough, 97 deputies have tested positive. In Tampa, 46 officers have tested positive, and St. Petersburg has had 21 officers who were infected.

Related: ‘Take it seriously.’ Tampa police officer recounts coronavirus ordeal
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 ]

Other agencies could not state the number of employees who have tested positive. The Hernando County Sheriff’s Office declined to share that data with the Tampa Bay Times. The Pasco County Sheriff’s Office said it doesn’t require deputies to report when they test positive.

Researchers have found that the protests themselves haven’t contributed significantly to the spread of the coronavirus. But many images from the demonstrations, including those in the Tampa Bay area, show officers have been inconsistent about wearing them.

Michael Sierra-Arévalo, a sociologist at the University of Texas who has studied police culture, said officers may disregard masks for the same reasons many don’t use seatbelts or complain about body-worn cameras: They don’t see them as necessary for their safety.

Officers tend not to complain about carrying firearms, Tasers and bullet-resistant vests, he said, because those could protect them from assailants. But even though they may understand that masks help keep others safe from the virus, “that doesn’t resonate in the same way with the culture of policing as the threat of armed violence.”

“I think that what the not-wearing-of-masks phenomenon highlights for me is that, in some ways, the interest of safety is, in many cases, very selfish on the part of police,” he added. “And I don’t mean that in the sense that they don’t care about the people they are sworn to protect and serve.

“It’s that practically … officer safety takes primacy over the public that they’re supposed to be keeping safe.”

Wolfson said he wishes all officers would take masks as seriously as they do the armored vests they don. Both are burdensome, but both can shield officers from dangers they won’t see coming.

“You can’t see the droplet nuclei coming,” he said, of the disease’s airborne particles. “But there are a lot more of them than bullets.”

• • •

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