Amid a growing number of calls to lift the Pinellas County ordinance requiring face coverings in public, the county’s Board of County Commissioners voted to extend a state of local emergency for another week.
The local emergency order, which has been in place since mid-March, gives county officials the authority to make emergency purchases and take whatever action is needed to protect public health amid the Covid-19 pandemic. The board voted unanimously to extend it to Aug. 28.
Commissioners took no action on the face covering ordinance, which is separate from the emergency order, but would expire if the emergency order was lifted.
Pinellas County’s Covid-19 cases generally are trending down. As of Thursday, the Florida Department of Health reported a cumulative total of 19,087 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Pinellas County, an increase of 93 cases since Wednesday. There have been 587 deaths in Pinellas attributed to Covid-19, including five additional deaths reported Thursday.
On Wednesday, 2.97 percent of the people who took Covid-19 tests tested positive, the lowest positivity rate in several weeks. The rolling seven-day average of people testing positive for Covid-19, a key metric used by public health officials, was 4.15 percent as of Thursday.
“Our numbers are looking good. We’re down below 5 percent. We’ve consistently been there for the seven-day average. However we know that continuing these efforts keeps us safe,” Barry Burton, county administrator, told commissioners.
The commission got about a dozen public comments, nearly all of them doubting the effectiveness of masks and the severity of the health impacts of Covid-19.
Commission Chair Pat Gerard said reopening Pinellas County schools, which are scheduled to begin offering a hybrid of in-person and virtual classes starting Aug. 24, could be a key factor in determining when to lift the mask mandate. She asked Dr. Ulyee Choe, director of the Florida Department of Health-Pinellas County, how long the schools should be open before the commission considers rolling back the mandate.
It should be at least one incubation period and up to three to four weeks, Choe said. But beyond that, most experts expect to continue to see ups and downs in case numbers, he said.
“For example, if the coronavirus acts like other viruses, we will see another spike when the weather is cool and people gather more indoors,” Choe said. “Most experts believe we are far from over … and most experts, from the CDC to the NIH to the World Health Organization, have recommended continuing social distancing practices and wearing masks.”
Masks have proven effective at containing the spread of Covid-19 worldwide, said Commissioner Janet Long.
“For any of you who has talked to someone who had the virus and recovered, it is not pretty. To say that it is not life-threatening is not factual,” Long said.
Commissioner Ken Welch addressed some callers who said their rights were being infringed by the mask mandate.
“If you don’t wear a mask and you are asymptomatic, then you are endangering the people around you who come in contact with you. You don’t have a right to pass this virus on to other people,” Welch said.
He also cited comments by leaders of local hospitals who have urged the commission to keep the mask mandate in place.
“When the medical professionals and public safety professionals look at the situation on the ground in Pinellas County and give us advice to remove that mandate, in my view, that’s when we will look at it,” Welch said. “But flu season is coming up. Schools are going to reopen. I don’t think now is the time to move backward on masks.”
Commissioner David Eggers said the commission needs to set criteria for determining when it will lift the face covering requirement. That criteria needs to be both quantifiable and qualitative, Eggers said.
“It needs to be more than we’ll know it when we see it,” Eggers said. “I do think it’s appropriate to have the discussion. Our residents demand that transparency.”
If Pinellas County revokes its mask mandate, schools and businesses could still keep their own mask requirements, according to Burton and Jewel White, Pinellas County attorney.