At Hillsborough commission meeting, experts urge masking up; public says nope

Commissioners faced sometimes-defiant members of the public, critical of the new requirement to wear facial coverings inside all Hillsborough County facilities.
Jason L. Salemi, PhD, MPH, associate professor, USF College of Public Health is shown on HGTV Wednesday afternoon during a briefing to county commissioners on the COVID-19 pandemic.
Jason L. Salemi, PhD, MPH, associate professor, USF College of Public Health is shown on HGTV Wednesday afternoon during a briefing to county commissioners on the COVID-19 pandemic. [ Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Aug. 4, 2021

TAMPA — A trio of private medical experts addressed Hillsborough County commissioners Wednesday morning and urged the public to take necessary precautions to stem the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

Minutes later, the commission faced sometimes-defiant members of the public who objected to the new requirement to wear facial coverings inside all county facilities.

“The mandates never worked as intended,” said Susan Leuthold. “... Please put an end to the bullying and divisiveness that comes with mandates.”

“This is medical tyranny. We as a people can govern ourselves,” said Jayson Williams,

Attorney KrisAnne Hall, a frequent critic of previous county policies during the pandemic, removed her mask as she finished addressing the commission from the podium. Eventually, Commission Chairwoman Pat Kemp asked security to clear the public from the chambers after a series of shouts and catcalls erupted when the 45-minute public comment period expired while 14 names remained on the sign-in sheet.

Outside the Frederick B. Karl County Center, protestors held signs stating “no masks for free people” and other slogans.

On Monday, following a surge in COVID-19 cases from the Delta variant and a changed recommendation from the federal Centers for Disease Control, the county began a new directive requiring facial coverings inside its buildings. It applies to county employees and the public and includes county libraries, recreation centers and office buildings. The public should follow CDC recommendations for outdoor activities at county parks, the county said.

“We are not imposing any mask mandates on businesses or individuals that would be contrary to what the governor has issued in past orders,” County Attorney Christine Beck said.

The discord followed a county resolution commending the medical community and health-care providers for the their responses during the pandemic. Accepting the recognition virtually were Dr. Robin McGuinness, senior executive officer for patient outcomes at Advent Health’s west Florida division; Dr. Nishant Anand, chief medical officer for Baycare Health Systems; and Dr. Sebastian Strom, chief medical officer for HCA West Florida, and Dr. Douglas Holt, director of the state Health Department in Hillsborough County. The private-sector physicians offered some unsolicited advice after accepting the resolution.

“Honestly, there’s more to do to fight this virus. We want this community to believe in science, to get vaccinated and to protect themselves from COVID-19.” said McGuinness.

“I would ask that we come together again and continue to push vaccinations, wearing masks and most importantly we must care for the sick and frail who need our help the most in our community right now,” said Anand.

Getting vaccinated “is a message that remains critically important today,” said Strom.

Epidemiologist Jason L. Salemi, associate professor at the University of South Florida College of Public Health, reinforced the message Wednesday afternoon as he briefed the commission on recent COVID-19 data.

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“In the short term, the only thing we can begin to do to block transmission ... is to wear a facial covering (and) socially distance, especially when we’re in indoor settings,” said Salemi. “There’s not that many things in our tool box right now to make a difference in the short term but certainly masking and socially distancing is one of them.”

Times staff writer Josh Fiallo contributed to this report.

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