After hours of impassioned debate and discussion from residents, elected officials and medical experts, Pinellas County commissioners voted unanimously to extend the local state of emergency until September 25. They also declined to schedule a previously proposed public hearing to review the county’s mask mandate, opting to wait for additional guidance from medical professionals at a future meeting.
During Thursday’s meeting, more than 60 residents shared their thoughts on the mask mandate, which was enacted in June and is allowed under state of emergency orders. Some urged commissioners to end it, saying masks are ineffective and a violation of their rights. Others, however, voiced support for extending the requirement in the interest of controlling the virus and protecting the health of the community.
Dr. Ulyee Choe, the director of the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County, said the county’s seven-day rolling percent of positive cases is hovering around 3 percent and hospitals have the capacity to care for people with the virus. He also said there haven’t been any significant outbreaks tied to the reopening of Pinellas County Schools. While he called these trends “encouraging” and understands that people don’t enjoy wearing masks or staying six feet apart, he cautioned county leaders to stay the course.
“We’ve been able to see these results from social distancing and wearing masks,” said Choe, citing numerous CDC studies that show face coverings are effective in preventing the spread of Covid-19. “Most experts believe this is far from over. I hope they’re wrong, but right now we can only act on the information we have and follow the recommendations.”
Following Choe’s presentation, commissioner Kathleen Peters expressed concerns about the mask mandate being in place for an indefinite period of time.
“Can we come up with an end date? Are we working on a plan for an end date?” she asked, adding that she’s worried about issues surrounding mental health and drug overdoses. “How we are responding to the pandemic is having a lot of unintended consequences, and our citizens deserve some kind of clear end date if numbers remain low.”
Choe responded by saying there is no standardized number or date as to when the mandate should be lifted, and that he and his team will continue to study the data to inform their recommendations. However, until herd immunity is established and a vaccine is widely available, he said mask-wearing and social distancing should continue to be practiced. He also encouraged residents to get a flu shot.
Aside from the discussion of public health data, the commission spent a significant amount of time urging residents to be more civil to one another, even if they may not agree on the mask mandate or the science behind it.
“It’s so important that we’re able to talk openly and without negative comments,” said commission vice chair Dave Eggers. “A lot of people do have legitimate reasons for not wearing a mask. We’re all in this county together. We need to worry about what we’re doing to be part of the solution instead of the opposite.”
Commission chair Pat Gerard, who believes decisions about mask mandates should be made regionally, said she’s seen bullying going on “both ways” between those who support the mandate and those who don’t. She also suggested there may be a need for additional communication reminding people that there are exemptions to the mask requirement.
Commissioner Ken Welch, who supports the mask ordinance, also called for more understanding and compassion among citizens.
“The conduct of some folks out in the community needs to change,” he said. “If you’re in Publix and someone doesn’t have a mask on, avoid them. Try to give them the benefit of the doubt.”
When it’s all said and done, commissioner Janet Long said, it’s the commission’s “moral and ethical responsibility” to continue with the mandate until the medical professionals give their OK in removing it.
“We’re moving through unknown territory,” she said. “We’re all trying the best we can to protect the public health and safety of our community. That’s our No. 1 job as elected officials.”
As of Thursday, Pinellas County has had more than 21,000 cumulative confirmed cases of Covid-19 and 714 deaths since officials began tracking the data in March.