NEW PORT RICHEY — With Pasco County’s COVID-19 case numbers shooting up, showing the community spread of the virus that no one wants to see, Pasco’s county administrator Dan Biles last week issued an order that businesses and government offices require everyone wear a face mask if they could not provide social distancing.
The community reaction was swift and divided, with social media, emails and calls on all sides of the issue buffeting county commissioners.
On Monday, their first public meeting since the order was issued, Pasco commissioners debated the rules. Commissioner Jack Mariano pushed to have the mandatory rule cut back to a recommendation. He argued that there has been inconsistency from medical professionals. Some studies, he said, say the masks don’t work, so people have a false sense of security. Others claim wearing a mask can actually be more risky than not wearing one.
Commissioner Kathryn Starkey took issue with that saying, “there’s a lot of junk on the internet.”
Commissioner Mike Wells said he also would rather see masks as a recommendation. But he would not provide a second when Mariano made a motion to change the order, since there was not support among the other three commissioners.
Starkey said she didn’t believe small businesses should be required to police the situation. If the county was going to levy fines against those who refuse to comply, they should be levied against individuals and not businesses already challenged by the coronavirus.
“All these small businesses are trying to do is stay afloat,” she said.”I just think the responsibility should be on the person and not the store owner.”
But Biles defended the wording in the order, which placed violations into the hands of code enforcement. Having the order require action against individuals might involve law violations and that was not where he said the county should turn for enforcement.
As written, the mask requirement gives businesses the opportunity to determine where social distancing cannot happen with their business type and masks would be necessary because they know their business best, Biles said.
Starkey didn’t push the issue.
Commission Chairman Mike Moore pointed to a packet he had distributed to his fellow commissioners. In it were letters from several hospitals, medical associations and individual doctors who all supported the order. He said Pasco hasn’t overreacted to the virus and hasn’t made it political, but with numbers shooting up and medical experts recommending swift action, he said the county had to act.
He said he was afraid to go backwards forcing another shut down that some companies won’t survive. “Besides protecting the health of the community, I want to protect the small businesses out there,” Moore said.
The voluntary mask wearing never caught on, said Commissioner Ron Oakley. But once the mandatory order went out, he said, “People are abiding ... it isn’t too much to ask.”
Mike Napier of the Pasco Health Department said wearing masks is proven to slow the spread of the virus and he said there was no doubt that it was now spreading throughout the community, with 1,053 of the total 1,909 cases in Pasco being reported in just the last week.
Another important consideration is that the Fourth of July holiday is this weekend. Since many communities saw cases increase after Memorial Day gatherings, there is a danger of even more significant infection. “We could have 2,000 new if we don’t stop the spread,‘' Napier said.