TAMPA — Hillsborough Commissioner Sandy Murman said Thursday the county needed to start talking soon about relaxing its mandatory face mask rule.
It turns out the commissioner already may have relaxed her own personal guidelines for face mask use.
Wednesday evening, less than 24 hours before her statement to the county commission, Murman attended the South Tampa Republican Club’s meeting — sans mask. The club’s regular monthly session at the SocialeItalian Tapas + Pizza Bar on Bayshore Boulevard drew the attention of a patron who filmed a portion of the gathering.
The 10-second clip forwarded to the Tampa Bay Times through a social media account appears to have been shot from a dining area separate from the gathering space.
It shows a stack of Murman’s red campaign yard signs leaning against the glass-door entrance. The doors are open and Murman can be seen inside standing and talking with another woman. Neither can be seen wearing a mask. None of the other people visible in the video, including a man in a red Murman campaign T-shirt, are shown with masks.
Under the county’s emergency order, people are required to wear masks at businesses and other indoor locations when social distancing is not possible. Businesses failing to enforce the mask rule can be subjected to code enforcement action, according to the county’s emergency order.
In a text message Friday, Murman acknowledged she and other Republican candidates attended the club’s meeting in a private room at the restaurant.
"Obviously, we ate and drank, my mask was not on; and certainly not as I spoke to the group and during quick pictures,'' Murman said.
She said the tables were spaced apart “but I didn’t get a tape measure out.”
"More importantly, and thank goodness, our data related to COVID cases is trending downward, and I am cautiously optimistic that we will return to normal life soon.''
She sent the same text a second time and offered no further comment when asked how she would answer potential criticism that she voted for the county mask rule, but did not follow it.
Wearing a face mask, especially while indoors, is one of the key ways to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus that caused COVID-19, said Dr. Douglas Holt, director of the state Health Department for Hillsborough County. He issues that reminder to commissioners on a weekly basis.
The former Hillsborough Emergency Policy Group approved the county’s the mask order in June on a 5-3 vote with Murman providing one of the swing votes. She has supported the order’s weekly renewal in the ensuing months..
When the commission dissolved the policy group and assumed responsibility for managing the county’s coronavirus response, Murman joined the commission majority to keep the mask order in place. The commission’s other Republicans, Stacy White and Ken Hagan, opposed the rule.
The face mask requirement is a point of contention at the weekly commission meetings with members of the public routinely using the comment period to assail the rule and ask the commission to repeal it.
Earlier this month, Murman broached the subject of when the public could resume normal activities.
During that Sept. 10 meeting, Holt told commissioners, "So again, continue to ask over next two to three weeks that we all do our best to keep practicing those habits. We need to protect ourselves and others.
"Avoiding those three C’s: Close contact, crowds and closed spaces. And wearing face masks, especially indoors.''
A few minutes later, Murman said, "at some point we have to kind of have an end game to what this is —where we’re headed with this and when we’re going to try and get our county back to any sort of normalcy going forward.''
Her political opponent disagreed.
"We are not at a place where we should be sending a message to the public or suggesting … to do something different,'' said Commissioner Pat Kemp. "We need to be wearing our masks. We need to be keeping away from crowded places. We need to do very strong observance of all the messages we’ve been told.''
Murman is leaving her District 1 commission seat after 10 years because of term limits. She is challenging the re-election of Kemp, a Democrat, for the District 6 countywide seat in the Nov. 3 election.
This week, Murman again raised the idea of easing the county’s emergency order in light of weekly data showing Hillsborough’s positivity rate for coronavirus tests dropping to 5 percent. She suggested the commission have the discussion in October. White agreed.
But Holt again offered a warning, "I strongly encourage us to wear masks. I would encourage people to wear masks. How you accomplish that I will support.”