Pinellas extends state of emergency; mask ordinance to continue

Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long talked about her concerns with lifting the ordinance that requires that people wear a face covering in indoor public places during an April 8 work session. The majority of commissioners say it is not yet time to make any changes.

LARGO — Pinellas County Administrator Barry Burton has extended the local state of emergency for COVID-19 through April 16. The extension continues the ordinance requiring face coverings be worn indoors in public places.

In addition, customers at restaurants and bars must be seated to be served and employees that handle food or drink must wear masks indoors and outdoors.

During an April 8 work session, County commissioners discussed a renewed effort by anti-maskers to get them to lift the mask mandate. County Attorney Jewel White said to put any potential action on the ordinance on the April 27 meeting agenda, commissioner would have to decide that day (April 8) to have time to meet the Tampa Bay Times’ deadline.

White said although it was traditional for staff to ask for the commission to take a formal vote to direct them to advertise public hearings, there was no legal requirement to do so. She also said if the commission decided to advertise the meeting, the ad could not be pulled if they changed their mind.

Commission Chair Dave Eggers pointed out that if no decision was made on April 27, the commission could defer to the next regular meeting on May 11.

Majority not ready to make changes

Commissioner Karen Seel said the latest report on the average number of test results coming back as positive was at 6.7%. That number has been increasing as well as the number of cases reported in recent weeks.

Seel said local medical experts had recommended that the positivity rate be at 3% before lifting the requirement to wear face masks. Seel said she would be comfortable with an average of 5%. She recommended waiting until the May 11 meeting to see how the numbers were trending before making any decisions on lifting restrictions.

Commissioner Kathleen Peters spoke after Seel. She doesn’t think the commission should wait. She attributes the increase in numbers to the influx of visitors, pointing out that hotel capacity is on the rise. She also said more people were getting vaccinated including the county’s more vulnerable senior citizens. She provided a lot of numbers and statistics.

She said people’s frustrations with having to wear a mask was so high that they weren’t not following the restrictions anyway, adding that businesses could still continue the requirement and the commission could encourage that.

“We need to start moving forward,” she said, suggesting that the commission make lifting the ordinance time sensitive with a date of April 31, “so all can prepare.”

Commissioner Charlie Justice said he wasn’t sure about all the statistics Peters had provided. He prefers to wait until staff presents its report on the latest information on April 13. He said the only change he is aware of is the hundreds of emails coming in filled with “vitriol and lies.”

Commissioner Janet Long pointed to the form-like statement at the end of many of the emails that talked about individual responsibility and that people have the freedom to do whatever they want.

“That’s not true when it comes to public safety,” she said.

She said if it was true, there would be no need for seat belt laws, speed limits, DUI laws, texting laws.

“There would be no need for half the laws on the books,” she said.

She is especially upset about emails that accuse commissioners of taking “10s of thousands of dollars” to keep the mask mandate in effect and accusations of corruption.

“This is not partisan,” she said.

Long continues to be concerned about the effect of young people who “think they are invincible, who are running around with no concern for their own safety or others.”

“There’s a huge influx of people coming in every day,” she said. “I have no desire to remove the mask mandate. No one is being arrested and they’re not being forced (to wear a mask).

Commissioner Pat Gerard agreed with Long, Justice and Seel.

“I know people are tired of masks. I’m tired of masks,” she said, agreeing with Peters that some are not wearing masks.

But she repeated that no one was being fined for not complying with the ordinance. She also said it was important for the commission to support businesses that were requiring their customers to wear masks.

“This is about leadership,” she said. “I’m not ready to remove (the requirement) because of nasty emails.”

Commissioner Rene Flowers joined the others that recommended waiting until fact-based numbers were available and more were vaccinated to make any changes. She said there were so many rumors going around, especially in communities of color.

She reminded everyone that getting vaccinated didn’t mean you won’t get COVID-19, it just will be less severe and you’ll be less likely to die. She also said that some vaccines weren’t doing that well against some of the variants, in particular the UK variant, which is prevalent in Florida.

She said it would be better if people stopped thinking of masks as an inconvenience rather than a form of protection.

“I’d rather be inconvenienced than be 6-feet under looking at the grass from the other side,” she said.

Eggers said since the majority was against taking any action on April 27, the matter would not be advertised.

“Eventually we have to rally around transition,” he said.

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

Corrected the dates the commission could hold a public hearing on the ordinance requiring facial coverings.