The Pinellas County Board of County Commissioners next month will consider rescinding a county ordinance requiring face coverings in public.
Commissioners voted unanimously to hold a public hearing on May 11 on the ordinance, which has been in place since June 24 and was designed to help reduce the spread of Covid-19. It mandates face coverings when inside a public space. It says bars and restaurants can only serve patrons who are seated and employers cannot prohibit an employee from wearing a face covering. It also includes exceptions for people who have trouble breathing or who say wearing a face covering would be detrimental to their health.
At the May 11 hearing, commissioners could decide to rescind the entire ordinance, either immediately or at some specific date in the future. They also could decide to keep part of it in place, or they could choose to take no action at all, a county attorney said.
The decision to hold the public hearing followed more than two hours of public comment and an earlier vote to extend the state of local emergency through April 23.
Dr. Ulyee Choe, the Florida Department of Health director in Pinellas County, provided an update on Covid-19 pandemic trends in the county, as well as the local vaccination campaign. “Covid is now the third-highest cause of death in the United States,” he said, adding that the county is seeing some increases in cases and positivity rates.
However, Choe added, residents have responded to the call to get vaccinated: Pinellas now ranks first among Florida’s highly populated counties in terms of the number of residents who’ve received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine. But in the case of the Pfizer vaccine, which requires two shots given three to six weeks apart, “we are seeing people not returning for the second dose. We are trying to educate people so they reschedule that missed second dose. You don’t want to space out the second shot by more than six weeks.”
Choe added that at the current pace, approximately 50 percent of Pinellas County residents age 18 and up should be vaccinated by May 25.
County Administrator Barry Burton brought up the question of when the mask mandate should be rescinded. Pasco County and Manatee County have already lifted their mask orders.
“We are trying to make the right decision about when to remove the mask ordinance,” Burton said. “We will have a lot more information, come May, because we will see a ramp up in vaccine.”
Choe said the mask mandate should be continued because of several factors, including coronavirus variants that are now circulating. The UK variant is of particular concern, he said. Also, upticks in cases in states and counties that have relaxed restrictions have stoked fears of a “fourth wave” of the pandemic just as vaccination efforts are picking up steam.
“If we remove social measures too soon, the risk of a surge increases,” Choe said. “You will see spikes.”
During the Tuesday meeting, commissioners heard from dozens of speakers, both in person and online. Nearly all of them were vehemently opposed to continuing the mask mandate.
One speaker said her deaf child relies on reading lips and has struggled socially and developmentally over the past year because of the widespread use of facial coverings. Another woman said wearing a mask impeded her brain function and even caused her to forget how to sign her name.
Other speakers lamented the societal divisions and hostility that they claim have resulted from mask mandates. “They are dividing us and making us enemies, trying to get us aggravated and mad at each other,” was one of the comments. “It’s not about a virus; it’s about control.”
A speaker who claimed to be an ICU nurse said the mask mandate is “foolishness” because masks do not stop droplets from escaping through the sides of the mouth, just the front. He also appealed to personal liberty. “The masks do nothing,” he said. “We are Americans; we should be free to decide how we conduct ourselves.”
Many of the comments opposing the mask mandate came from residents who claimed to be part of Pinellas Watch, a private Facebook group that has around 1,500 members. The group’s description says the county commission “has operated with far too little citizen oversight for far too long,” but does not make any of its content available to non-members.
— St. Pete Catalyst‘s Margie Manning contributed to this report.