The county face mask mandate didn’t last long without fines for enforcement.
Manatee County commissioners voted 4-3 Sept. 29 to rescind and repeal the mandate adopted in July that required people to wear face masks inside businesses when they couldn’t maintain at least 6 feet of social distance and allowed for fines to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Commissioners Vanessa Baugh, Priscilla Trace, Stephen Jonsson and Betsy Benac, who previously supported the mandate, voted to rescind the mandate.
Commissioners Carol Whitmore, Misty Servia and Reggie Bellamy opposed the motion.
The vote followed Gov. Ron DeSantis’ decision Sept. 25 to issue an emergency order to enter phase 3 of the state’s reopening plan.
Phase 3 lifted several restrictions, allowing restaurants and bars to operate at 100% capacity for the first time since March.
It also stripped local governments of their ability to fine people for coronavirus-related violations, including noncompliance with mask mandates.
In April, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidance on preventing the spread of the virus, stating that “masks are recommended as a simple barrier to help prevent respiratory droplets from traveling into the air and onto other people when the person wearing the mask coughs, sneezes, talks or raises their voice. This is called source control.”
The CDC recommendation is based on what scientists know about the role respiratory droplets play in the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19 paired with evidence showing masks reduce the spray of droplets when worn over the nose and mouth.
Florida lacks the kind of statewide mandate that exists in 33 other states so, in the summer, with COVID-19 cases spiking, many local governments implemented mandates, including Manatee County, Anna Maria, Holmes Beach and Longboat Key.
Assistant county attorney Bill Clague told commissioners that Phase 3 prevented law enforcement officers from effectively enforcing the mandate even though the county had not issued a single fine for violating the mandate.
“Our face coverings resolution imposes mandatory requirements to wear face coverings and imposes fines on individuals who don’t comply,” Clague said. “Under the executive order, that is no longer enforceable.”
Clague said the county mandate “achieved quite a bit of compliance,” but needed to hold businesses responsible since, under phase 3, the only way to enforce a mask mandate is by trespassing violators.
However, he cited concerns with placing the weight of enforcement on businesses.
“The cleanest and most legally defensible way to handle this now is to repeal the resolution,” Clague added.
Commissioners had conflicting views on the mandate’s effectiveness.
“I don’t think the mandate really made a big difference,” Baugh said in support of repeal. “It’s really up to each individual business as to whether they want to enforce the wearing of masks or not.”
Whitmore argued that face masks were shown to be an effective countermeasure to the coronavirus’ spread, adding that the mandate should be altered, not repealed.
“I know masks make a difference,” said Whitmore, whose career was in nursing. “Masks do work, but I don’t think we can continue with the same ordinance we have today.”
Speakers at the meeting offered mixed takes.
“I just wanted to thank the commission for the mask mandate,” Bob Slicker said. “Scientific studies have shown across the board that masks work… .This is about taking care of people.”
Slicker, general manager of Swordfish Grill in Cortez, said the mandate made it easier for his employees to require mask usage among customers.
County resident Andrea Griffin argued against the mandate, stating that it violated her rights.
“Our numbers are down. Why keep doing this to county residents?” Griffin asked. “We can govern ourselves. I don’t need someone telling me what’s right for my family.”
“I haven’t worn a mask before. I will not wear a mask going forward. I didn’t wear a mask coming in here. I refuse to wear a mask because it’s not your decision what I do with my body,” she added.
Trace moved to rescind and repeal the mandate. Baugh seconded the motion, which passed 4-3.
Commissioners also unanimously voted to adopt an advisory proclamation proposed by Benac encouraging people to wear face masks if they can’t maintain social distancing.
“I want to make it clear: the recommendation on masks is not being changed by any medical professional,” Benac said. “They still say we should be wearing them.”
Also, the county requires masks in its facilities, including the libraries and administration buildings, and the county’s state of emergency remains in place.
A face masks order remains to be considered by the Manatee County School District at an Oct. 8 workshop and, possibly, the board’s Oct. 13 meeting.
Island reaction, adjustments
Anna Maria Island’s three cities dealt with the recent wave of changes differently.
Holmes Beach Mayor Judy Titsworth said Sept. 30 that the city’s mask mandate remains while criticizing the county decision to repeal the mandate.
“It is apparent masks and social distancing are working to protect our citizens from COVID-19,” Titsworth said. “Out of respect for the health care providers and our citizens, the mandate should not have been lifted.”
Holmes Beach’s mask mandate places the responsibility of enforcing the requirement on businesses. Under phase 3, the only change is the city can’t fine businesses for failing to enforce the mandate, and there had been no instances of that occurring before the governor’s order.
“Nothing has changed. We still require masks and that businesses continue to enforce mask ordinances,” Titsworth said. “A vaccine still is a long way out and we don’t know at this time if it will be a success.”
In Anna Maria, the mayor retracted the city mandate but laid out a new order.
Mayor Dan Murphy issued an executive order Oct. 2 allowing businesses and special events to require face masks, as well as established trespass requests as the only method to enforce such requirements.
“We view the value of face masks differently than the county commissioners,” Murphy wrote in an Oct. 2 email. “But what they did is their choice.”
When asked if he thought it was a good decision to strip local governments of their ability to levy fines for coronavirus-related violations, Murphy wrote, “Not in Anna Maria’s case, with our elderly and vulnerable population, but we will adjust as best we can.”
Bradenton Beach never enacted a mask mandate, instead depending on the county’s mandate.
Bradenton Beach Police Lt. John Cosby told city commissioners Oct. 1 that he isn’t concerned with the mandate’s repeal.
Face mask violations weren’t am issue, he said.
“We’ve only had one issue so far, so I’m not that worried about it,” Cosby said, adding that most businesses still have signs requiring mask-wearing.
He said a person who refuses to comply with a business requirement could be trespassed and, if they remained on-site or returned to the business they could be arrested.
Mayor John Chappie did not respond to a Sept. 30 email from The Islander.