As Pinellas County prepares to gradually reopen some county offices to the public, members of the Board of County Commissioners disagree on the need for face coverings for visitors and employees.
Commissioner Kathleen Peters is skeptical about the effectiveness of face coverings, while Commissioners Ken Welch and Janet Long are strong advocates for masks as a way to slow the spread of Covid-19.
The mask debate occurred as Barry Burton, Pinellas County administrator, outlined a potential plan for opening some county offices that have been closed for weeks and resuming in-person public hearings. Burton has a target date of June 1 but said that could fluctuate depending on orders from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Long said she was recently at a small gathering which included two county employees. She had a mask on but the others did not.
“I think that there’s an opportunity here for leadership in terms of walking the talk,” Long said during an online meeting of the county commission on Thursday. “I think it might be an opportunity for us as a protocol to establish that if people are going to come to a public meeting they must wear a mask. That’s all part of what we’re trying to establish in our culture right now.”
Welch said he was concerned that once offices reopened, workers and visitors without symptoms of Covid-19 could inadvertently spread the disease. Face coverings would help prevent that, Welch said.
“I think even if we’re not making it a requirement we can send a stronger signal that it is a [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] recommendation. A lot of folks are wearing masks voluntarily … It’s probably safer for everyone if you wear that mask, especially if you haven’t been tested,” Welch said.
Peters said the CDC does not mandate face coverings. The CDC does recommend them.
“I don’t see mandating masks at all,” Peters said. “I took my son to a doctor’s appointment yesterday and they had one of their therapists faint because they were breathing in carbon dioxide through their mask. There is research saying that wearing masks is not necessarily as safe as you think it is, so I have concerns about mandating anything regarding that when the CDC guidelines are recommendations.”
Commissioner Dave Eggers said the county could post signs at the entrance to each of its building, suggesting visitors wear masks.
Commissioner Karen Seel said the county should “strongly recommend” face coverings.
“Costco is requiring members to wear a mask when they’re in there, and in a confined space I feel safer wearing something for protection purposes, so I think strong encouragement would be wonderful,” Seel said.
Wearing a face mask in public has become a political statement, the Associated Press reported, “The mask is increasingly a visual shorthand for the debate pitting those willing to follow health officials’ guidance and cover their faces against those who feel it violates their freedom or buys into a threat they think is overblown,” an AP news story said.
County commissioners did not vote on the issue. Burton said the county has enough masks for employees, but not for visitors.
Most county services and operations have continued through the crisis, although 743 county employees are working remotely, while others are working staggered shifts and with physical separations between people.
Some activities are being done over the phone instead of face-to-face.
In some cases, that’s worked well, but there are limitations, and the county is evaluating those measures, Burton said.
“How do we incorporate precautions but allow some of those counter-based activities?” Burton said. “I think there are some counter-based activities that we can do over the phone and we should encourage that. It speeds it up … We’re looking at ways we can incorporate technology but still allow for folks that need to have counter-based activities be able to do them.”
Any county facilities that open would adhere to CDC guidelines, such as plastic counter shields, hand sanitizers, floor decals, deep cleaning and masks and gloves where needed, Burton said.
County commissioners and many other county boards and councils have been meeting virtually for several weeks, with public access available via the Zoom platform. Now, officials are trying to determine how to safely hold in-person public hearings that often attract large groups of people eager to speak out on controversial issues.
Burton suggested those hearings could be at the County Extension Center. The center, at 12520 Ulmerton Road in Largo, has a large meeting room that could be outfitted with cameras so the public hearings could be broadcast or webcast.
“That way we could allow for separation of commissioners, the staff and the public and we could accommodate a larger group with CDC guidelines for social distancing,” Burton said.
He also suggested commissioners hold one-topic meetings for public hearings that are likely to draw big crowds.
“We’re really going to try to work with the community to say you could sign a petition, so they know your feelings, but let’s not have 300 people in a room. If they want to come then we’ll have to accommodate them and rotate people in and out, but we’ll try to work with the community the best we can to allow the public voice and also adhere to guidelines of large crowds,” Burton said
Much of what Pinellas County does depends on whether and when DeSantis moves Florida into “phase two” of a state re-opening plan, Burton said.