County adopts mask mandate amid COVID-19 explosion

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People stand July 23 outside the Bradenton Area Convention Center in Palmetto, holding signs encouraging mask-wearing. Inside, county commissioners discussed requirements for masks. Islander Photo: Courtesy Misty Servia
Manatee County Commissioner Misty Servia listens July 23 during a commission meeting at the Bradenton Area Convention Center, 1 Haben Blvd., Palmetto. Islander Screenshot
Manatee County Commissioners and staff maintain a safe distance July 23 during a meeting at the Bradenton Area Convention Center, 1 Haben Blvd., Palmetto. Islander Screenshot

Positive cases of the novel coronavirus are exploding in Manatee County.

And a narrow majority of county commissioners voted July 22 to consider a mask mandate, which might lower the curve on infections. A vote on an ordinance was to be taken July 27, after The Islander went to press.

As of July 24, 7,520 people in the county had tested positive for coronavirus of 71,975 people tested, compared with 5,914 of 61,375 people tested as of July 16, according to the Florida Department of Health.

The rate of positive cases had risen to 10.4% of those tested for the first time since early May.

Thus far, a total of 468 people had been hospitalized and 153 people had died due to the virus in the county.

Also, as of July 24, 155 COVID-19 patients were in county hospitals, with 32 of the patients in intensive care units.

At the time the data was reported, there was only one ICU bed available in the county, according to the Agency for Health Care Administration.

The median age of people with positive cases in the county was 39, while the state median age was 40.

On Anna Maria Island, 17 people in Bradenton Beach, 11 people in Holmes Beach and three people in Anna Maria are known to have tested positive.

At a July 22 county commission meeting, following a presentation on the COVID-19 data by county public safety director Jake Saur, County Commissioner Carol Whitmore asked when the commission was going to discuss a face mask mandate.

“That’s the elephant in the room,” she said.

Whitmore added that the commission has received “hundreds of emails” asking for the mandate and that in Holmes Beach, where she resides, people are following the city mask mandate and numbers have stayed low.

Assistant county attorney Bill Clague said 19 Florida counties and 64 cities have mandated face coverings.

He said there have been 14 lawsuits filed against jurisdictions, including 11 against counties. However, since Leon County’s face covering mandate held up in court, he recommended following it as a model.

The Leon County ordinance requires people to wear face coverings while inside businesses. Exemptions include children under 6 years old, people with breathing difficulties, people in private rooms such as hotel lodgings, people maintaining social distance from others while exercising, eating or drinking and business owners or employees in a private area of an establishment where they are able to maintain social distance.

Manatee commissioners discussed a mandate in June but opted to support the Florida Surgeon General’s advisory, which states, “All individuals in Florida should wear face coverings in any setting where social distancing is not possible.”

Clague said an ordinance would be stronger than a resolution and would trigger action by code enforcement, as well as the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office, but would require a notice of 10 days taking effect.

“Ten days from now, there’s going to be more deaths,” County Commissioner Misty Servia said. “And how many of those are we going to be responsible for?”

Clague said the commission could consider an emergency resolution while working on an ordinance to speed up the process.

Servia’s motion, which passed 4-3, directed the county attorney’s office to “draft, schedule and advertise the necessary resolutions and ordinances to put in place a mask mandate as soon as possible,” and schedule a special meeting for the vote.

Servia and Whitmore, along with Commissioner Reggie Bellamy and Chair Betsy Benac voted in favor, while Vanessa Baugh, Stephen Jonsson and Priscilla Whisenant Trace were opposed.

“We have to do what we can,” Benac said. “The CDC has issued the guidelines. It’s clear. They say, ‘Wearing a mask does reduce the transmission.’ I’m believing the science.”

The resolution would serve as a temporary measure until the county can advertise and vote on an ordinance.

The proposed face covering resolution was posted July 24 to the county website at mymanatee.org.

A special meeting was set for July 27, after press time, at the Bradenton Area Convention Center in Palmetto to vote on the resolution.

Editor’s note: Commissioners July 27 voted to enact a local face-covering resolution that went into effect immediately. Those entering a business in Manatee County are required to wear a face mask. The resolution requires an individual in a business establishment to wear a face covering while inside the business, unless social distancing can be achieved — 6 feet or more apart. The mask mandate does not apply to children under age 6 or to those “who have trouble breathing due to a chronic pre-existing condition or individuals with a documented or demonstrable medical problem.”