Pinellas commissioners consider emergency ordinance to slow spread of COVID-19

Pinellas County commissioners were joined by health experts, the sheriff and staff during a June 18 discussion about ways to slow the spread of COVID-19. Commissioners will consider an emergency ordinance on June 23.

CLEARWATER — Pinellas County commissioners are concerned about what health experts describe as exponential growth of COVID-19 cases locally and statewide.

Florida Department of Health reported a new one-day high of 203 new cases in Pinellas on Thursday, June 18. The county’s cumulative case count now totals 2,887 with 112 deaths. DOH reported 162 new cases on June 13, which had been the previous one-day high.

Commissioners met Thursday morning to consider extending the local state of emergency until June 26, which passed unanimously. They also talked about a number of alternatives that might be enacted in an emergency ordinance to try to slow community spread.

In addition, they agreed to cancel plans to hold an in-person meeting on June 23 and meet virtually instead. Commissioner Karen Seel voted no. The plan had been to meet in the Magnolia Room at the Extension office in Largo, which has more space to allow for social distancing.

However, with the growing case count, coupled with the fact that Commission Chair Pat Gerard has recently been exposed to someone with COVID-19, the majority felt it would be safer to meet virtually. The public hearings scheduled for that meeting will be canceled.

The consensus seemed to be to continue to meet virtually as long as the governor’s order allowed. The order expires at the end of the month and Pinellas will request that it be extended at least another month.

How to slow the spread

The majority of the meeting was spent talking about ways to slow the community spread of COVID-19.

County Administrator Barry Burton said everyone knew there would be increases as things reopened and more testing was done; however, over the past seven days, Pinellas’ positivity rate has averaged 5.6% with more than 12% of test results being positive from June 17.

“The trend is not going in the right direction,” he said.

He said community spread, especially in ages 25-34 was occurring at an “alarming pace,” which puts everyone at risk. He also commented on local bars that were allowing hundreds of young adults to pack into their establishments to listen to live music. He equated that to the problems the county experienced during spring break. He is concerned that people seem accepting of large crowds.

He would like to limit occupancy at businesses with certain types of licenses, adding that by the governor’s order bars are only allowed 50% capacity. He wants to enact rules that are “strategic and surgical and go after the heart of the problem.”

Dr. Ulyee Choe, director of the Department of Health in Pinellas, concurred with Burton’s concern about the rising number of cases and positivity rates. Choe also is worried about the effect on hospital capacity and increases of emergency room visits for COVID-19 symptoms.

“The curve is exponential at an alarming rate,” he said, adding there were no tools to fight COVID-19 but social distancing and face masks.

“Dr. (Anthony) Fauci says the virus tells you what to do and it's telling us we’re not doing enough social distancing and wearing face masks,” Choe said.

Fauci is director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Choe commented on the varying public opinions about face masks and the different types — N95, surgical and cloth masks. He said research has shown there would be an 80% decrease in cases if everyone would wear one, especially when they can’t social distance or when around someone in the vulnerable population.

He said N95 and surgical masks were the best protection, but needed to be reserved for health care workers. But, cloth masks are better than nothing, he said.

Dr. Larry Feinman, chief medical officer at HCA West Florida, also is concerned about the mortality rate. He told commissioners that a person has a three times better chance of dying from COVID-19 than from open heart surgery.

“I’m begging you to consider mandatory use of face mask,” he said, adding that it was the commissioner’s “role in public health to do all you can to make sure everyone is protected in indoor or public places.”

He said local hospitals currently had sufficient ICU beds and ventilators, but the fast growth of cases was a concern. He pointed out that a lot was still unknown, but it is known that the novel coronavirus is more than a respiratory illness. Multiple organs are involved, he said.

Commissioner Kathleen Peters questioned Choe and Dr. Angus Jameson, director of Emergency Medical Services, about guidance she found on the Occupational Health and Safety Administration’s website about face masks, which she believes is in conflict with those that say they wearing masks would be a benefit.

Jameson said he had heard some arguments about the effectiveness. He said there was “clearly a disconnect” between OSHA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other sources, which he believes is part of the problem.

He agreed that face masks won’t provide protection if they don’t fit closely to the face or if they aren’t worn properly. And he agreed that cloth masks aren’t as effective as the ones worn by health care workers. But, he believes if used with other measures, such as social distancing, good sanitation and hand washing, it can help.

Peters then brought up OSHA’s statement that masks can make it harder to get oxygen. She said she had worn one and had gotten light-headed. She also talked about jobs where employees sweat or are in atmospheres where masks could be wet or contaminated.

Jameson said he had seen data that showed wearing masks for a long period of time could cause loss of air, especially if someone is speaking a lot. He admitted that masks aren’t comfortable, but also pointed out that emergency care workers and hospital staff wore them for extended periods on a regular basis.

Peters also questioned Jewel White, county attorney, about the legality of employers mandating that employees wear masks. She said she had heard from businesses worried about getting sued.

“Anyone can sue for anything,” White said, adding that the question is whether they have a good case.

St. Petersburg enacted an emergency order effective June 19 that requires employees at the city’s businesses wear face masks in areas open to the public. It includes some exceptions including no mask required while eating or drinking or excising, or if a hearing-impaired person needs to communicate with the person, or if a person has trouble breathing.

The county is considering doing something similar countywide.

Gerard brought up complaints from some employees who say their employers won’t allow them to wear face masks because they say it scares the tourists. She wants to make sure that practice is stopped.

White said an employer should never tell an employee they can’t wear a mask.

The debate then began over what should be included in an ordinance about mandatory face masks and should it include only employees but customers as well. And should it be all businesses or only retail. Commissioner Dave Eggers suggested it be limited to essential businesses, such as grocery stores, pharmacies, doctor’s offices and hospitals.

Then the question came up if that would include Target and Walmart or other places that sold groceries as well as other items, and whether masks would be required only in the grocery sections.

Commissioner Ken Welch said they should consider the goals, adding that the effect of phase two and the recent protests was not yet known.

“We’ve got a problem here and limited tools,” he said. “If we don’t act with masks, what will we act with?”

He said he supported St. Petersburg’s order. He said enacting an order might not get 100% compliance, but even if it gets more people wearing masks that would be helpful.

Peters said if they enacted an ordinance, she had been told breaking it would be a second-degree misdemeanor punishable by 60 days in jail.

“Nobody is going to jail for not wearing a mask,” said County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri. “I’m not doing it.”

He’s more focused on getting bars to limit how many people come inside. He said dance clubs had crowds that were “wall-to-wall and shoulder-to-shoulder.” He said those businesses aren’t even making an effort.

He suggested crowded bars were a bigger problem than someone passing someone not wearing a mask in the aisle of a retail store. He said some bars and restaurants had made a good effort and others had not.

He would prefer an order that restricts bars from having more than 50 people inside, regardless of allowed capacity. He said that would be easier to enforce. The governor’s order also requires patrons to be seated to be served and it limits gatherings to 50 people or less.

The discussion then turned to including civil penalties in the ordinance, so people would be fined instead of having criminal charges. The sheriff said he was agreeable to that method.

Gualtieri believes that businesses are responsible to ensure proper social distancing and capacity. He agreed that people in the service industry should wear masks when interacting with others.

Peters continued to present reasons why requiring masks wasn’t a good idea and asked if children and toddlers would be required to wear them.

“We’re looking for solutions, not reasons why things won’t work,” Gerard said.

“We want to include as much commonsense as possible,” Seel said.

Seel suggested a simple ordinance that required all businesses to require masks.

Jameson said the commission needed to look for things that people were willing to tolerate. He said it wasn’t sustainable to keep people apart forever, although he believes that is the best method for preventing the spread.

“At the end of the day, I’d like government not to be involved,” Eggers said. “But we have a sense of responsibly toward public safety,” he said.

He still promotes the message of people taking preventative measures to protect others, even if they won’t do it for themselves.

Trevor Burgess, owner of a St. Petersburg business, advocates a countywide ordinance to make face masks mandatory.

“Don’t just rearrange the chairs on the Titanic and only take baby steps or you’ll be back next week to do more,” he said.

In the end, commissioners asked Burton, White, Gualtieri, Choe and Jameson to get together and draft an emergency ordinance to discuss at the June 23 meeting.

Gerard also asked that they provide something in writing about what people and businesses should do if they come in contact with someone positive with COVID-19.

Gualtieri believes businesses can make a big difference in how individuals act.

“Peer pressure goes a long way,” he said. “Other businesses can get it to stop. It’s hurting everybody.”

Suzette Porter is TBN’s Pinellas County editor. She can be reached at sporter@tbnweekly.com.