Pinellas enacts mandatory face mask order effective at 5 p.m. June 24

Pinellas County commissioners passed an emergency order June 23 that requires everyone wear face masks while in indoor public places. It goes into effect at 5 p.m. Wednesday, June 24.

CLEARWATER — After more than six hours of discussion and listening to more than 100 public comments, Pinellas County commissioners voted 6-1 to require all persons wear a face covering while in any indoor public place countywide.

Commissioner Kathleen Peters voted no. The order becomes effective at 5 p.m. Wednesday, June 24.

Before that vote, the commission voted 6-1 to waive the public notice requirement and find that a public emergency existed.

In the order

The order to wear face coverings applies to all persons countywide while in indoor public places; however, it specified that all persons who own, manage or are employed by any restaurant or bar within the county are required to wear a face covering at all times while on-duty and directly or indirectly preparing food or beverage, or serving food or beverage, or having customer contact, regardless of where the food or beverage is being prepared or whether the customer contact is inside an indoor public place or outdoors, such as on a patio or sidewalk.

Persons are discouraged from using N95-rated masks because they are needed by health care workers, police, fire, emergency management and others in life or safety activities.

A face covering is defined as a material that securely covers the nose and mouth and remains in place without the use of hands. It can be secured with ties, straps or wrapped around the lower face. A cloth face mask may be factory-made or sewn by hand or improvised from clothing or household items. The commission made an amendment to add face shields to the list despite health experts saying they aren’t as effective in preventing the transmission of COVID-19.

The mandatory order requiring the wearing of facial coverings comes after a steep rise in COVID-19 cases in the county. The county’s health experts say the exponential increase is beginning to effect emergency rooms and hospital capacity, especially the number of ICU beds.

The concern is if something isn’t done to slow the community spread, the hospital system could become overwhelmed, which was the purpose of the safer-at-home orders put in place in March.

Exceptions to the face mask rules

It is up to the parent’s discretion as to whether children under age 18 wear a mask, but they are encouraged to have children wear them if possible.

People do not have to wear a face mask when dining or consuming beverages while seated at a table or a bar, as long as they are social distancing, which means staying 6 feet apart from people other than a companion. A companion is defined as a person or persons that accompanied you to a restaurant or bar.

Face masks are not required if there are less than 10 people in a location and those persons are maintaining social distancing.

Persons who are exercising and maintaining social distancing also do not have to wear a face mask.

Business owners, managers and employees who are in an area that is not open to customers, patrons or the public, do not have to wear a mask, provided that 6 feet exists between employees. The exception does not apply to employees in a kitchen or other food or beverage preparation area of a restaurant or food establishment.

Face masks do not have to be worn in situations where a hearing-impaired person needs to see the mouth of someone to communicate.

Another exception is if a person has trouble breathing or while a person is unconscious, incapacitated or otherwise unable to remove the face cover without assistance. In addition, the requirements do not apply if it would be detrimental to health, safety or security. It is not necessary to carry written proof of a health condition that would prevent a person from wearing a mask.

The order may not be applied in a way that would conflict with the Americans with Disabilities Act. It also does not apply to government facilities, which will make their own rules, or to hospitals or health care facilities that are encouraged to develop their own procedures.

Other rules in the order

The emergency ordinance also requires owners, operators, managers and employees of bars, restaurants or indoor public places to ensure that every individual in that establishment complies with the ordinance.

Owners and operators should establish rules that encourage social distancing, hand washing and other protective measures customers and employees based on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, state Department of Health guidelines.

Businesses, including bars and restaurants, that serve food or drink for on-site consumption must comply with social distancing rules. No food or drink can be served to anyone that is not seated at a table or the bar. Standing at a bar is prohibited.

Tables must be spaced so that no person or a person with companions is less than 6 feet apart from others. Groups cannot be larger than 10, including areas such as dance floors where people are not seated. No group larger than 10 can be seated at any one table.

In addition, employers are not allowed to prohibit an employee from wearing a face mask.

Penalties

A person observed not wearing a mask by a code compliance or law enforcement officer will receive a warning. If they do not immediately put on a mask, they will be issued an ordinance violation citation to appear in county court.

If a business owner or employee of a restaurant or bar, or a customer, violates any provision in the ordinance, they also will be issued a citation to appear in court.

If found in violation, the fine is $100 for the first violation, $250 for the second and $500 for a third. The ordinance also allows for injunctive relief, meaning a business could be shut down. In addition, repeat violations could result in a misdemeanor arrest or notice to appear.

Arguments for and against

The commission listened to more than 100 people during the public comment period June 23 with opinions about 55% in favor and 40% against. Another 5% were neutral. They also received about 1,100 emails.

County Administrator Barry Burton said the rising number of COVID-19 cases coupled with the increase in positivity rate for tests showed that the county had a problem.

“The trend is very clear we have issues with community spread,” he said.

He said there had been significant increases in the younger age groups, adding that the county had “let down its guard” on bars and night clubs, especially ones with bands.

Dr. Ulyee Choe, director of Department of Health Pinellas, said the county’s case count exceeded 4,000 with 129 deaths. He pointed to the big increase in the average number of cases per day and the rate of positive tests, which is up to 12% compared to 1%-2% about two weeks ago.

He also said there had been an increase in hospital emergency department visits for people with COVID-19 symptoms. In addition, more ICU beds were occupied by COVID patients than ever before.

“There’s no cure, no treatment, no vaccine,” he said. “We have to learn to live with it (the virus). These growing numbers are concerning.”

He said if the spread wasn’t contained, local hospitals could get overwhelmed and not be able to provide care for all illnesses.

“Our only options are social distancing and masks,” he said.

The emergency order will remain in effect as long as the local state of emergency is active or is rescinded by a separate vote by the commission. The commission voted unanimously to extend the local state of emergency until July 3.

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