All persons must wear a face covering while in any indoor public place in Pinellas County, beginning at 5 p.m. June 24.
The Pinellas County Board of County Commissioners approved the universal face covering requirement as the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths increase and hospitals start to feel a strain from taking care of more sick people.
The board voted six to one to approve the universal face covering requirement — the broadest of three options before it — after listening for nearly five hours as Pinellas County residents called in to the online meeting to voice their opinions on the issue. Commissioners also received more than 1,100 emails on the subject, said Pat Gerard, commission chair.
The ordinance mandates face coverings when inside a public space. Employers cannot prohibit an employee from wearing a face covering. In addition to the face covering mandate, bars and restaurants must also comply with social distancing requirements, keeping a six-foot distance between individuals or groups. Standing at a bar is prohibited.
There are several exceptions in the ordinance. The face covering requirement does not apply to people who have trouble breathing or people who say the requirements would be detrimental to their health, safety or security. It also makes an exception for situations where a hearing-impaired person needs to see the mouth of someone wearing a face covering in order to communicate with them and for religious rituals such as singing in church, as long as the participants can maintain social distancing.
Commissioners modified the definition of face covering to include face shields, as well as masks. They also adopted language in a St. Petersburg order that took effect Tuesday that says the requirements don’t apply if there are less than 10 people in a location and the people in that location maintain social distancing, as well as language from the St. Pete order that allows parents to decide if their minor children have to wear masks.
Anyone who doesn’t wear a face covering after receiving a warning can be issued a local ordinance violation, a non-criminal citation, to appear in county court. Any person or business establishment found in violation of the ordinance could be fined $100 for a first violation, $250 for a second violation and $500 for a third violation. The county could seek an injunction to stop repeated violations.
Commissioners approved the measure after Dr. Ulyee Choe, director of the Florida Department of Health-Pinellas County, said it was clear that the county was seeing community spread of COVID-19.
On Tuesday, Pinellas County crossed the 4,000 mark in total COVID-19 cases. As of Tuesday morning, 4,033 Pinellas County residents have tested positive for COVID-19 since the Florida Department of Health began reporting case counts by county in early March. That was an increase of 179 cases from Monday. Over the past seven days, an average of 12 percent of test results each day have been positive. Four or five weeks ago, that average was 1 to 2 percent.
As of Tuesday, there have been 129 deaths in Pinellas attributed to COVID-19, a one-day increase of 12 deaths, as well as an increase in hospitalizations and use of intensive care beds by COVID patients, Choe said.
“There is no cure, there is no treatment, no vaccine. It will be with us a while. We have to learn to live with it. With increasing numbers it is concerning and we need to take additional actions,” Choe said. “A mask needs to be worn in combination with social distancing if we really want the biggest bang for the buck and to turn this curve.”
Several commissioners weighed in before taking their vote.
“This county commission has tried to be the least restrictive possible when putting in parameters for the safety of the people of Pinellas County,” said Commissioner Charlie Justice. “None of us have wanted to get to the point of having to require face masks … It is the last tool we have in the toolbox.”
The vote was not a partisan issue, said Commissioner Karen Seel. “This is about public health and safety.”
The action was no more partisan than public safety orders issued when a hurricane is coming, added Commissioner Ken Welch.
“This virus doesn’t give a damn whether you have an R or a D with your name,” said Commissioner Janet Long.
Commissioner Kathleen Peters, who cast the only vote against the ordinance, said she supports masks. “What I do not support is mandating masks.”
Separately, Pinellas County commissioners also voted to extend the local state of emergency from June 23 to July 3.