Order requiring facial coverings remains in effect in Pinellas

Pinellas County commissioners voted unanimously Sept. 10 to extend the local state of emergency until Sept. 18. The action keeps the ordinance requiring mandatory face masks in indoors places in effect.

CLEARWATER — Despite an organized effort on Sept. 10 by about 20 members of the public opposed to Pinellas County’s ordinance that requires wearing of facial coverings in indoor places, commissioners unanimously approved extending the local state of emergency until Sept. 18.

County Attorney Jewel White explained that the ordinance could not be repealed without first setting a public hearing and it also could not remain in effect without the local state of emergency.

County Administrator Barry Burton said the state of emergency is needed to allow the county to receive reimbursements for expenses related to the COVID-19 pandemic from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

The commission agreed to talk about advertising a meeting about the ordinance at its Sept. 17 meeting. Depending on conditions at that time, they may agree to hold a public hearing on the ordinance on Oct. 1 or 6.

Before the vote, commissioners listened to members of the public opposed to the order requiring facial coverings. Many of them are members of a newly formed Facebook group called Pinellas Watch. The private group has about 660 members. In its about message, it says the commission “has operated with far too little citizen oversight for far too long. The mask mandate of 2020 is a symptom of their decision making issues. This group seeks to keep our finger on the pulse of BCC actions, as well as facilitate organization of the growing numbers of concerned citizens.”

All three of the group’s founders, Dave Happe of Tarpon Springs, Kristy Alvarez of Seminole and Jessica Gilley of unincorporated Pinellas, spoke at the Thursday night meeting.

Happe has participated in the public comment period for the past several meetings. He wants the commission to specify the criteria that will be used to lift the face mask mandate. Others claiming to be members of the group also asked about the parameters needed to repeal the ordinance.

Some of the arguments against mandatory face masks were the same as those presented before the commission approved the ordinance on June 23. Objectors claim it is a violation of their constitutional rights and that wearing a mask should be a choice not a requirement. They say wearing a mask is unhealthy and not everyone can wear one. Some say that COVID-19 is no worse than the flu and that it only affects those that are seriously ill.

They also were upset about the “Rise to Shine” campaign launched Sept. 1 by Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, the county’s tourism marketing agency. The campaign was designed to promote visitor safety and responsibility with the message, “Spread out. Mask up.”

Illustrations on campaign materials are meant to show that Pinellas is a safe destination, according to Steve Hayes, VSPC president and CEO.

Those opposed pointed to a wrap on a Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority bus that shows people outdoors wearing masks and a male carrying a paddleboard wearing a mask. The county’s ordinance does not require masks in outdoor settings.

Some of the objectors accused the county of using the tourism campaign as a way to keep the ordinance in place.

Commissioner Kathleen Peters also criticized the illustration that shows kids on paddleboards wearing a mask. She has long maintained that wearing a wet mask is dangerous.

“It sends the wrong message,” she said.

Commission Chair Pat Gerard, who also is chair of the Tourist Development Council, agreed that showing people wearing a mask outdoors might not send the right message. She asked Burton to talk to Hayes about the illustrations.

Another argument by those opposed was the decrease in case numbers and deaths, and an improvement in hospital capacity.

Burton agreed that the numbers had been trending downward; however, he said 70,000 teachers and students had recently returned to school, and colleges and universities had opened. He said there had not been enough time to see whether that would cause an increase in cases.

He said when the ordinance requiring facial coverings was passed, the county had experienced record numbers of cases occurring after Memorial Day. Cases increased after the Fourth of July. It is not yet known if Labor Day will cause a similar spike.

The commission asked about cases and quarantines at Pinellas County Schools.

Dr. Ulyee Choe, director of the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County, said the information was available at the district’s website. Visit https://www.pcsb.org/COVID19Cases.

Commissioner Ken Welch addressed statements by some about businesses being hurt due to occupancy limits. He said those limits were set by the state, not the county.

Welch also pointed out that the requirement to wear face masks at schools was set by the school district, not the commission.

Welch objected to statements that the mask ordinance was political. He said that was not true and the only reason the commission had passed the ordinance was to protect public health.

He agreed with Burton that not enough time had passed to see if reopening schools would cause an increase in community spread of the virus.

Choe said school had been back in session for almost three weeks, which wasn’t quite enough time to know the effect.

He said while case counts had been trending downward, the numbers had started to plateau and had even increased slightly, as had the positivity rate. He said more younger adults had been getting tested. He agreed that the hospital system was doing well.

Welch said the progress made had been because of the mask ordinance and social distancing. He said the county needed to be careful about undoing what put it in a good position.

He also addressed those that said the COVID-19 was not more serious than the flu. That’s incorrect, he said. He said it wasn’t true that the virus only affected the very ill, citing healthy people that had fallen victim to the illness.

He debunked those who said wearing a mask should be a choice. He said it wasn’t the same as a motorcyclist choosing not to wear a helmet.

“If you don’t wear a mask you’re endangering others if you’re asymptomatic,” he said. “It’s not a right.”

He also objected to the attempt to politicize the decision. Some of the protesters encouraged others to vote for opponents of Commissioners Janet Long and Charlie Justice in November.

He said the commission was listening but disagreed on some things. He said it would be good to look at the mask ordinance in a couple of weeks.

“I’m not going to be bullied on threatened into a decision I don’t feel comfortable with,” he said.

Long agreed, pointing out that the commission had already agreed to revisit the mask ordinance after seeing what happened after school opened and Labor Day passed.

Commissioner Kathleen Peters asked Burton to explain the purpose of the local state of emergency. He said it was needed to get FEMA reimbursements for emergency purchases related to the pandemic, such as personal protective equipment.

Peters asked if the county now had enough or would need to buy more. Burton said the county was attempting to keep a 90-day supply.

Burton said the only thing different from the state’s rules in the county’s ordinance was the facial covering requirement and the requirement for patrons to be seated to be served at restaurants and bars. However, the state does require patrons to be seated to be served at bars.

Peters wanted to know if the rule to be seated could be removed. Burton said no. He said he along with Sheriff Bob Gualtieri had crafted that measure after all the kids congregated at local bars. He did agree to discuss it with the sheriff, who wasn’t able to attend the Sept. 10 meeting.

She also asked about the validity of using vitamin C as a treatment for COVID-19. Choe said it is sometimes used for sepsis and some studies have shown high doses might be helpful. Other studies have shown that vitamin D might be better. He said there were some indications that it might reduce the risk of getting COVID.

Peters then wanted to know why more wasn’t being done to promote prevention. She said the county was promoting washing hands and washing masks, but asked why the county wasn’t encouraging people to take vitamins and take other measures to strengthen their immune system.

She said the low numbers were wonderful, and agreed that COVID-19 is a “dangerous virus,” but she said it was time to give an end date for the mask ordinance.

“People deserve an end date,” she said. “We’ve done what we said we wanted to do and I think it is time.”

Commissioner Karen Seel said she agreed with almost everything the other commissioners had said and would echo the words from Welch. She said she had listened to the public and read the emails. She said she understood the need to have individual freedom.

“None of us want to deal with COVID effects,” she said.

She said she looked forward to receiving “concrete data” from the county’s medical experts and would be willing to end the mandate depending on that data.

Dr. Angus Jameson, the county Emergency Services Medical Director, agreed that prevention was “incredibly important.” But he pointed out underlying conditions might make a person more at risk for COVID-19, including illnesses such as high blood pressure. He said it wasn’t just the elderly and very sick.

He said a lot of uncertainty surrounded the virus and data still shows that masks are a valuable tool to slow the spread.

“I don’t think it is quite time to stop using them,” he said.

Justice said the issue shouldn’t be political. He also said Choe and Jameson shouldn’t be put in a position to say that certain numbers or criteria should trigger certain actions. He said the commission shouldn’t “necessarily listen to the loudest voices in the room,” but instead should make the best decisions for everybody.

Gerard said she is ready to start talking about rescinding the ordinance, but agreed with Commissioner Dave Eggers who said the commission had to be ready to re-enact it if there were negative effects. She said just because the numbers were better didn’t mean the virus was gone.

Burton said the number of daily cases was still higher than they had been. About 30 cases a day had been reported about 2.5 months ago and now it was about 70 a day.

White reminded commissioners that the only thing they were voting on that night was the local state of emergency. She said a vote on the ordinance would have to be advertised 10 days in advance. But due to the newspaper deadlines, the decision to advertise would likely need to be decided two weeks in advance.

Eggers suggested letting the state of emergency expire, which the ordinance is tied to, and then making a second emergency declaration. Burton wasn’t sure if that would cause problems, but agreed to look into it.

In the end, the commission decided to wait until Sept. 17 to make a decision about advertising a public hearing. However, there was concern that would set an expectation.

Peters said it would be good to set a date.

“The community really wants it,” she said. “If the numbers come up really high next week and we decided to defer it, that’s not a big problem.”

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