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Pinellas rescinds mask mandate after DeSantis’ executive order

Gov. Ron DeSantis’ executive order on Monday also invalidated the county’s state of emergency and its requirement for safety plans for large events.
Lydia Martinez, 10, poses with her mask at the Florida Strawberry Festival in Plant City on Thursday, March 4, 2021.
Lydia Martinez, 10, poses with her mask at the Florida Strawberry Festival in Plant City on Thursday, March 4, 2021. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published May 4
Updated May 4

Pinellas County on Tuesday announced the removal of three initiatives enacted during the pandemic, including its mask ordinance, one day after Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order that immediately lifted local governments’ COVID-19 restrictions.

County officials rescinded the mask ordinance adopted on June 23, which required face coverings in most indoor public places except while eating and drinking. The ordinance also required social distancing, groups no larger than 10 and for customers to be seated in order to be served.

Sheriff Bob Gualtieri confirmed that business owners retain the right to enforce a mask and social distancing policy if they choose. He said a customer’s refusal to comply with a business owner’s mask policy could result in a trespass charge.

“This is a basic tenant of property rights in Florida: it’s your business, you get to regulate who comes in and who doesn’t,” Gualtieri said. “People don’t need to be getting into conflicts with each other over this.”

County Administrator Barry Burton on Tuesday said DeSantis’ action also prompted him to remove an order Burton adopted in February that required individuals and organizations to submit safety plans in order to hold large events.

The state of local emergency, which has been renewed every seven days since the Commission enforced it in March 2020, is also invalidated, Burton said.

The local state of emergency allowed the county to be reimbursed by the federal government for supplies and manpower expended during the state of emergency and for running its vaccination sites. It also gave broad powers to administrative staff to maintain public health, like using emergency procurement procedures to quickly obtain supplies.

Burton said even before DeSantis’ order, he had planned to phase out county-run vaccination sites as more vaccine is acquired by the private health sector. This will be the last week for residents to receive their first shot at county-run sites, Burton said.

“The governor felt as though as people get the vaccine that they are shifting to personal responsibility and we certainly encourage people to continue to wear face coverings where you can and more importantly get your vaccine,” Burton said.

The Pinellas County Commission had planned to vote on the fate of its mask mandate on May 11, but that discussion has now been removed from the agenda. Last month, some commissioners hinted at their plans to propose the lifting of the mask requirement to take effect in June.

Commissioner Rene Flowers said on Monday she felt the county was not ready to go without the safeguard as seven-day infection rates linger above 3 percent, the threshold that a panel of Tampa Bay health professionals recommended as the bar for lifting requirements.

Anti-mask advocates had been inundating Pinellas County officials over the last few months with demands to lift the mask requirement. On April 27, more than 70 residents addressed the commission with pleas to remove the requirement for health and personal liberty reasons.

Across the bay, Tampa deputy city attorney Andrea Zelman confirmed DeSantis’ order invalidated the city’s mask ordinance Mayor Jane Castor enacted in June.

“Our interpretation is that effective yesterday, our local face covering order is no longer in effect,” Zelman said.

Hillsborough County also had a mask requirement on the books before DeSantis’ order on Monday. Pasco County Administrator Dan Biles ended his countywide face covering requirement on April 5, citing the rise of vaccinations.

Times staff writer Allison Ross contributed to this report.