Three months after enacting an ordinance requiring masks in indoor public places to stem the spread of the coronavirus, the Pinellas County Commission indicated on Thursday it is ready to begin exploring whether to repeal the requirement.
Commissioners cited the county’s decline in new cases and hospitalizations since they adopted the mask ordinance on June 23, and how over the past two weeks, positivity rates of those tested have stayed below 4 percent.
They agreed to review infection numbers and hospital capacity data at their meeting on Sept. 17, about four weeks after Pinellas County students and teachers returned to school.
If cases have not spiked a month after this milestone of schools reopening, commissioners predicted they could schedule a vote for either Oct. 1 or Oct. 6 on whether to repeal the mask ordinance. The county’s ordinance applies to most indoor public places, but Pinellas County Schools has a separate mandate requiring masks be worn on school property.
“I think it’s time that we give the public a general idea on an end date," Commissioner Kathleen Peters said. "In the beginning, we said ‘flatten the curve, protect the hospitals.' We have done that and I think it’s time.”
The commission has been inundated over the past several weeks with anti-mask advocates emailing and calling in to public meetings, demanding the ordinance be repealed. Many have used the issue to threaten to vote commissioners Janet Long and Charlie Justice out of office in November, as they are the only two Democratic incumbents with Republican challengers.
Justice cautioned that the commission should consider the science and not necessarily set arbitrary case thresholds to determine when a mask requirement is no longer needed.
“I think we take all that information in as we’ve been doing, not necessarily listen to the loudest voices in the room on a particular night, take the expert data that we get and make the best decision possible for the people that we serve,” Justice said, after about 20 anti-mask advocates spoke during the meeting’s public comment portion.
Commissioner Ken Welch said he’d be willing to examine the ordinance in a few weeks, after studying the data related to the reopening of schools. But he cautioned against eliminating the very tool that he said has gotten cases under control.
“We have made progress and I think the progress we made is precisely because of the masks and because of the social distancing and so we have to be very careful in undoing the very things, the very actions, that put us in a good position,” Welch said.
Dr. Angus Jameson, the medical director for Pinellas County Emergency Medical Services, described the coronavirus as an unpredictable new disease that medical experts are still studying. He warned the commission against assuming any permanency in the progress made so far.
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“The preponderance of the data, studies, expert opinion, out there I think still supports that masks are a valuable tool in slowing and helping to prevent the spread of this virus,” Jameson said.
Some state officials have raised pressure for the removal of mask requirements. On Sept. 4, Gov. Ron DeSantis asked all 67 counties to submit coronavirus-related ordinances and the dates when they will be terminated. In July, state Rep. Anthony Sabatini sued Pinellas County over its mask ordinance, as he has done in more than a dozen other municipalities.
While the commission was meeting Thursday evening, Florida’s top business regulator announced via Twitter that the state’s bars may reopen at 50 percent capacity on Monday. Bars and breweries that do not have substantial food menus have been banned from selling alcohol on-site since June 26.
The county’s mask ordinance also has a provision requiring customers be seated in order to be served food or drink at bars and restaurants. County Administrator Barry Burton clarified on Thursday that the local seating requirement will still be in effect during the state’s bar reopening phase.
The commission voted unanimously on Thursday to extend for another seven days the state of emergency, a separate action from the mask ordinance that allows the county to receive federal reimbursement for emergency purchases and manpower used during the crisis.
Commissioner Dave Eggers stressed the need to create some sort of end date for the public and to not allow masks to be an indefinite requirement.
“I’m getting to a point where I’m thinking we get rid of the masks. I’m not opposed to putting them back in place if we see the numbers going the other way again,” Eggers said. “I’m not prepared to say I’m waiting two years or a year and a half or a year before we get the vaccine before we do this.”
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