While renewing the weekly state of emergency on Thursday amid the coronavirus pandemic, the Pinellas County Commission did not schedule a vote on whether to repeal the ordinance requiring masks in most indoor public places.
Commissioners last week said they would review updated infection data at Thursday’s meeting and decide whether to advertise a future vote on the mask mandate, a step required to repeal the ordinance. With heads of local hospitals scheduled to address the board on Oct. 1, and the mayors of St. Petersburg and Tampa urging the county stay the course, commissioners said they were not ready to take the step of discussing a repeal.
“We need to work together on this, we have so many people that go back and forth across bridges or around the county,” Commission Chair Pat Gerard said. “As we said at the beginning, we need to have a regional approach.”
The Clearwater City Council on Thursday voiced unanimous support for the county’s mask ordinance.
Commissioners have been inundated over the past few weeks by residents for and against the mask requirement, which was enacted June 23. On Thursday, they heard three hours of residents calling in to the virtual meeting, where about 50 demanded a repeal and 30 urged the requirement to continue.
An active anti-mask movement has sprouted through social media groups, which has coordinated a phone and email campaign to elected officials.
“Issuing mandates based on arbitrary views is unconstitutional at its face and sets a dangerous precedent toward dictatorship in this nation,” Susan Mack of North Redington Beach told Commissioners. “If someone wants to breathe air freely in America and trust the immune system God created for them, they should have that choice.”
Several have threatened to use the Commission’s mask mandate against them at the ballot box in November, when Democratic commissioners Charlie Justice and Janet Long face Republican challengers business owner Tammy Vasquez and former state Rep. Larry Ahern, respectively.
Justice and Long both noted they would sway on the side of science, as the majority of health professionals, including the Centers for Disease Control, urge that masks are effective in helping to stem the spread of the virus by blocking respiratory droplets.
“We have a moral and ethical responsibility to continue with the mask mandate until the medical professionals and scientists give us the OK that we are good to remove it,” Long said.
On Thursday, Dr. Ulyee Choe, Director of the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County, reiterated his support for masks as a tool to combat spread of the virus. He noted the county’s seven-day rolling case count stands at 90, and the positivity rate of those tested remains at 3 percent, below the numbers seen when the mandate was enacted in June.
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“I would contend that we were able to see these results because of the efforts with social distancing and wearing masks,” Choe said.
The citizen messaging to the Commission on Thursday was also a battle over facts and evidence, personal responsibility and choice.
Several anti-mask advocates questioned scientific studies that have shown the effectiveness of masks.
In a study published in Health Affairs in June that looked at mask requirements in 15 states, researchers found the daily COVID-19 growth rate declined by 0.9 percentage points five days after the orders and 2 percentage points three weeks later.
Several callers supporting masks asked the public to consider the impact on others.
“You prioritize your own comfort over other people’s lives,” said resident St. Petersburg Deja-Denice Sherrod. “The black population in St. Pete has been disproportionately affected and experiences higher rates of contraction for coronavirus ... the people who are saying ‘oh yeah, let’s not wear a mask, get rid of this mask mandate,’ are not part of these communities at all.”
The county’s state of emergency order, which must be renewed weekly since it was adopted in March and is separate from the mask ordinance, was also a target of callers. The order allows the county to be reimbursed by the federal government for supplies and manpower expended during the state of emergency. It also allows county officials to use emergency procurement procedures to quickly obtain supplies.
Len Wasnock of Tarpon Springs called it “government tyranny.”
“I can only draw the conclusion that the Pinellas County mask mandate and the state of emergency orders are part of the political agenda which has impacted the economy of Pinellas County in a very negative way,” he said.
Commissioner Kathleen Peters reiterated her call made over the past few weeks that “people deserve an end date plan.”
Although Choe and members of an internal county data team are comparing metrics with other counties, he said there is no standardized number for which to end a mask mandate or recommendation.
Dave Eggers, who last week said he was “getting to a point where I’m thinking we get rid of the masks,” softened his stance on Thursday.
He urged the public to be civil with one another when encountering residents with different viewpoints.
“We just have to continue to worry about what we’re doing to be part of the solution,” Eggers said. “I think we stay that course today. I think we need to continue having that dialogue.”
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