Pinellas County’s ordinance requiring face coverings and social distancing in public places could be up for review next month.
The face mask requirement, approved in June, has been a flash point during the Covid-19 pandemic. Backers, including top public health officials in Pinellas County, say it has been part of successful efforts to control the virus in the county. Opponents say the mask mandate it is ineffective and violates their constitutional rights. Some of the opponents are part of an organized group called Pinellas County Watch, who regularly comment during the online county commission meetings.
Late Thursday, the Board of County Commissioners agreed to consider the latest data and expert recommendations at their next meeting on Sept. 17, before deciding if they will schedule the public hearing that would be required to repeal the mask mandate ordinance.
For now, county administrative and public health leaders remain cautious about the pandemic.
As of Thursday, there was a cumulative total of 20,655 confirmed Covid-19 cases in Pinellas County, an increase of 67 from Wednesday. Four more deaths related to Covid-19 were reported Thursday, bringing the total number of deaths in the county to 697 since reporting began in March.
There have been fewer new cases on a daily basis in recent weeks, but Barry Burton, county administrator, said case numbers also were low prior to the Memorial Day and July 4th holidays and then hit record-breaking levels.
“We are seeing the trends go down, but we also know that not only do we have 70,000 children and teachers going back to school, we’re also seeing our universities open up,” Burton said. “We know we need to watch this over the next two to three weeks to be able to see the trends and what is occurring on the ground.”
Overall, there has been an improvement, said Dr. Ulyee Choe, director of the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County, but he also has concerns.
“One thing I’ve noticed over the past seven days is our seven-day rolling average for percent positivity was as low as 2.6. It has plateaued and ticked up slightly. It is 3.1 percent today,” Choe said. “It could be just a blip and it could go down again and I hope that’s the case, but if it continues to increase that can be concerning.”
There’s still a lot that isn’t known about the virus, said Dr. Angus Jameson, medical director for Pinellas County Emergency Medical Services. He said he would be reluctant to say it’s time to move back from the mask mandate.
“The preponderance of the data, studies, expert opinions out there still supports that masks are a valuable tool in slowing and helping to prevent the spread of this virus,” Jameson said. “I wish it was over too. But for me, if the choice is between putting on the mask and saving a life, I know what my choice is.”
Commissioner Ken Welch said the county has made progress in controlling Covid-19 and should be careful about undoing the actions that put the county in a good position.
Commissioner Dave Eggers, who is vice chairman of the board, said he would like to see the state’s phased-in recovery plan advance before the county makes changes.
“I think we’re in pretty good shape with our numbers. I’d like to see that Phase 2 go to Phase 3, and then I think we ought to seriously consider rescinding the mask order,” Eggers said. “If the numbers are going up and out of control like they were before, I’m all for putting the mask mandate as part of the tools to fight this back in place.”
Board members also called for greater emphasis on preventative measures such as good nutrition, exercise and managing chronic health conditions to fight Covid-19.
The county mask ordinance is allowed under a state of local emergency. Commissioners extended the state of local emergency to Sept. 18. That action also allows the county to access federal funds to deal with the pandemic.