Largo resident Kristi Alvarez, her voice nearly cracking, made a promise to two Pinellas County commissioners as she phoned in to a meeting earlier this month, demanding the mask mandate enacted to slow the spread of coronavirus be repealed.
“If anything good has come from COVID, it’s that there are more eyes on this commission now than ever before,” Alvarez said. “Come November, there are a couple of you who should be prepared to retire, because you will be voted out.”
Since the Commission voted June 23 to adopt an ordinance requiring face coverings in most indoor public places, a contingent of anti-mask advocates have been organizing on social media, encouraging like-minded voters to show their disapproval on Election Day.
As the only two incumbents facing challengers, Democrats Janet Long and Charlie Justice have become the targets of an anti-mask movement calling for their Republican replacements. Both believe this contingent, which has flooded their inboxes for the past three months, is a vocal minority that doesn’t represent the broader community.
“Elected leaders should make their decisions based on as much good scientific information you have, not on the loudest voices in the room on a particular day,” Justice said.
Medical experts say masks are effective in preventing the transmission of respiratory droplets and slowing the spread of the coronavirus, but data shows that sentiment over masks is falling increasingly along party lines. This means masks might not be a singular deciding issue for voters but more indicative of trends for each party.
“I would say there is almost no swing vote when it comes to masks,” pollster Keith Frederick said. “If you’re an anti-masker, you’re just going to vote against all Democrats anyway.”
An August survey of 600 Floridians conducted by the University of South Florida found 87 percent supported a statewide mask mandate. The study found majorities in both parties supported the measure, but a larger percentage of Democrats approved.
Anthony Pedicini, a GOP political consultant based in Tampa, said private polling of Tampa Bay residents he has seen over the past three months as local caseloads have decreased showed 60 percent of Democrats and 20 percent of Republicans supporting masks. Though it was Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’ stay-at-home order that shut down businesses early in the pandemic, local Republican voters recognized his reluctance to do so because of the impact on the economy, he said.
“I don’t think the mask issue on its own is an election winner or defeater, it’s a symbol of everything else that’s happened,” Pedicini said. “The question for voters is going to be, ‘Are the people that got us to this point the people we want to lead us out and fix the economy going forward?' I think the economic question is going to be the driver."
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Many comments on the Pinellas Watch Facebook page, created in response to the county mask mandate, call for its 1,300 followers to vote Nov. 3 for former state Rep. Larry Ahern, Long’s opponent in District 1, and business owner Tammy Vasquez, Justice’s opponent in District 3. Both seats are at-large.
District 5 Commissioner Karen Seel, a Republican who voted for the mask ordinance, is up for reelection but has no challenger. School board member Rene Flowers, a Democrat, and former St. Petersburg NAACP president Maria Scruggs, no party affiliated, are running for the District 7 seat being vacated by Commissioner Ken Welch. Both candidates support the mask ordinance.
Ahern’s campaign website makes no mention of his position on the mandate. He did not respond to two voicemails, two text messages or an email over the past two weeks asking for his position on masks.
Vasquez filed to run against Justice in May after her pet grooming and boarding business Bark Life was mandated to close for one month by the state’s stay-at-home order.
In an email to the Tampa Bay Times, she said she has concerns as to “whether the (county mask) mandate is a violation of our personal freedoms and the health impact of wearing masks.”
She noted that the county ordinance allows residents to remove masks while seated in a restaurant yet a child in a classroom must keep their mask on, an inconsistency that leads “to further confusion and frustration.” However, Pinellas County Schools has a separate mandate requiring masks on school property, which is not controlled by the county commission.
When asked to clarify whether she supports the county mask ordinance or not, Vasquez declined to comment.
Long and Justice have faced an anti-science contingent before.
In 2011, the county commission voted 4-3 to stop adding fluoride to the water supply following a vocal campaign from anti-fluoride activists. Long and Justice each ran against incumbent Republicans who voted to remove fluoride and made the issue central to their campaigns.
When both won in November 2012, they said it was evidence the community at large favored medical evidence supporting the tooth decay fighting mineral, even though the anti-movement was louder. The new Commission voted 6-1 in early 2013 to begin adding back fluoride to the water.
Long said like her support of fluoride, her support of the county’s mask ordinance has been based on science and facts. But unlike the fluoride debate, she said this one is about life and death.
“This isn’t political, I’m sorry but a virus that kills people doesn’t care what the initial is behind your name,” Long said. “What we’re trying to ensure is do no harm. That’s the first rule of public policy making and we’re trying to ensure the decisions we make do not hurt people."
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