While Alachua County residents and elected officials debate the use of face masks in scenarios where face-to-face interactions happen and physical distancing is difficult, an airborne virus with no known cure has infected 37,439 Florida residents and killed 1,471.
The discussion at the Alachua County Board of County Commissioners meeting on May 5th centered around the county’s face covering policy that went into effect on May 4th, the same day as Phase 1 of the state’s “Safe. Smart. Step-by-Step Plan for Florida’s Economy” kicked off.
At an April 29th briefing Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis emphasized protecting members of the population who are at most risk of becoming critically ill or dying from contracting COVID-19. That population is ages 65 and older and those with underlying health issues.
“The most important social distance we can do is distancing the vulnerable from those who are not,” DeSantis said. “Because if you are not vulnerable, you may be a carrier of this and not have symptoms or not know it and you have a risk to pass it along.”
DeSantis said he was in favor of people wearing face masks when necessary.
“We’re recommending face masks if you’re in face-to-face interactions with people particularly in the workplace and if you can’t adequately social distance,” he said. “If you are in a face-to-face business, that to me has got to be a business practice.”
DeSantis issued Executive Order 2020-112 on April 29th. He addressed in-store retail establishments specifically in Section 4: “Other Affected Business Services.”
The order states that “Unless I direct otherwise, for the duration of this order, the following applies to other business services affected by my previous Executive Orders: A. In-store retail sales establishments may open storefronts if they operate at no more than 25 percent of their building occupancy and abide by the safety guidelines issued by the CDC and OSHA.”
The CDC website reports that it recommends the use of homemade cloth face coverings to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
“CDC continues to study the spread and effects of the novel coronavirus across the United States. We now know from recent studies that a significant portion of individuals with coronavirus lack symptoms (“asymptomatic”) and that even those who eventually develop symptoms (“pre-symptomatic”) can transmit the virus to others before showing symptoms.
“This means that the virus can spread between people interacting in close proximity—for example, speaking, coughing, or sneezing—even if those people are not exhibiting symptoms. In light of this new evidence, CDC recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies) especially in areas of significant community-based transmission.”
Alachua County issued Emergency Order 2020-21 and specifically addressed face coverings.
The rationale behind the decision is spelled out in the order:
“WHEREAS, the gradual reopening of the State and the County will lead to more contact between individuals and lead to more potential for the increased community spread of the disease. Face masks are of great assistance in preventing individuals who may be shedding the virus to spread it to other individuals; and”
“WHEREAS, researchers at the University of Florida believe it is too early to ease restrictions without enhanced testing in place and that such testing is not currently in place and that COVID-19 will be present in the population for a long time, and
“WHEREAS, COVID-19 is spread through airborne transmission from individuals sneezing, speaking and coughing and infectious droplet nuclei can spread for a great distance, although how far is not fully understood at present; and
“WHEREAS, the Centers for Disease Control have recommended the use of facial coverings to reduce the spread of the virus since many individuals with no symptoms can spread the virus.”
The face covering requirement as outlined by the Alachua County order states that the “Use of face coverings and personal protective equipment,” applies to “Persons working in or visiting grocery stores, restaurants, retail facilities, pharmacies, construction sites, public transit vehicles, vehicles for hire, along with locations where social distancing measures are not possible shall wear facial coverings as defined by the CDC.”
The BOCC amended the order on May 5th to increase the age of children required to wear a face covering and to accommodate any medical issues or disabilities.
“A face covering shall not be required for children under six, persons who have trouble breathing due to a chronic pre-existing condition or individuals with a documented or demonstrable medical problem. “
The need for and the enforcement of the face covering rule came under scrutiny during a discussion among county commissioners and call-in public comments during the May 5th meeting that lasted five hours.
A retail businesses association representative called in with concerns about the enforcement of the face covering rule because it “seemed to be falling on retailers to enforce,” she said and she asked for more education of the public on the rule and emphasized that “education first, rather than enforcement,” would be the best approach.
Commissioner Marihelen Wheeler said she received a report of a store employee threatening to call police because a customer refused to wear a face covering.
Commissioner Mike Byerly disagrees with the face covering rule and said, “We’re way, way out on a limb with what we’re doing here in Alachua County.”
Commissioner Ken Cornell said he had received complaints but noticed a heightened use of face masks. “Others not wearing masks noticed they were outnumbered and uncomfortable that they were in the minority,” he said.
Cornell said that South Florida businesses used the requirement of face coverings “as a branding opportunity,” and suggested that the new rule will take time to get used to for employees and customers. “We’ve got to give it a chance,” he said.
The action by code enforcement when someone defies the order is intended to start out with a warning and to be educational, County Chair Robert Hutchinson said, and added that he was hoping that the City of Gainesville will match the County order so that enforcing the face covering rule will be the same and so that residents don’t have to switch between multiple orders.
Alachua County Sheriff’s Office Spokesperson Arthur Forgey said he doesn’t think deputies will have to deal with face covering non-compliance.
“I don’t see us having much involvement in this as I believe businesses will self-police themselves,” he said.“With that being said, the Sheriff’s Office will continue to work closely with county government and county code enforcement.”
“Information can be reported to the county resource portal and 311,” Forgey said. “We will continue to educate the public and the Sheriff’s Office stance will be and has always been that citations or charges will only be a last resort.
The authority to enforce emergency orders issued by Alachua County or the State of Florida is granted under Florida Statute 252.47, which is a second degree misdemeanor, according to Forgey.
The Gainesville Police Department is taking a similiar stance to the Sheriff’s Office.
“Currently, the City of Gainesville is placing the enforcement of wearing a mask or face covering inside the establishment on the business owner or operator,” said Gainesville Police Department Chief Inspector Jorge Campos. “Any business that does not place reasonable measures to ensure the persons occupying the business is wearing a mask or face covering, then the owner or operator will be subject to being charged with a violation of emergency orders.
If a person, after the business tries to ensure compliance, refuses to wear the mask and does not have a valid exception under the order, then the business owner can ask for the person to be trespassed from the business. The individual is also subject to being charged with a violation of the emergency order as well.
Ultimately, the City is encouraging compliance through education and secondarily through enforcement. Charging and/or arresting individuals are a last resort.”
If citations are issued the First offense is $125, second offense $250 and third offense $500.
The intent of the BOCC’s decision to require face coverings be worn in face-to-face interactions and locations where physical distance is hard to achieve according to the order is, “The Board of County Commissioners believes based upon the foregoing that it is important to be cautious in the process of opening up businesses in the absence of detailed testing and contact testing while implementing the Governor’s plan in phasing, reopening as local conditions allow to be done with prudence.”
While Executive Order 20-112 provides more opportunity to be outside the home, those who are vulnerable to infection should stay home as much as possible. Those who are not considered to be at risk should use prudence when leaving their home and stay at home if possible, the County order states.
If non-compliance leads to a surge in cases, Chair Hutchinson said lifted restrictions will be reinstated and the county could go back to a stay-at-home order.