OKALOOSA ISLAND — While The Boardwalk dining, shopping and entertainment complex on Okaloosa Island is urging patrons to maintain social distancing and sanitized hands as a means of slowing the spread of COVID-19, its signage doesn’t mention another measure recommended by public health professionals — the wearing of cloth face masks.
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And in Okaloosa County, the widespread failure to wear cloth face masks is being identified as a major factor in the spread of COVID-19 in the county.
“For the general public, the failure to maintain physical distancing while socializing (work, shopping, entertainment, etc.) and the failure to wear cloth face masks, especially when maintaining physical distancing is difficult, is significantly contributing to the spread of SARS-CoV-2 in Okaloosa County,“ Dr. Karen Chapman, director of the Florida Department of Health in Okaloosa County, said in a widely distributed Monday email.
Chapman went on, in a report attached to the email, to note a shift in the pandemic’s targets from the elderly, who are particularly susceptible to COVID-19, to people under 40 years of age.
But, she also noted that the shift doesn’t necessarily mean less danger to the more vulnerable elderly population.
“While the pandemic shift to those under 40 years of age generally means less serious illness, each case affords the virus a route back to older parents or family members or other non-household contacts who are at greater risk of serious illness or death,” Chapman wrote.
As a result, she concluded, “It is vital that physical distancing and the wearing of cloth face masks be supported and demonstrated by the leadership of the county, whether that be state, local or city government, schools, military, private business, faith-based, or non-profit agency leaders.”
The need for such modeling — for both residents and visitors to the county, now that vacation season is back in nearly full swing after the dropping of a state ban on short-term rental of vacation accommodations — is clear.
A Monday afternoon walk through The Boardwalk, a dining, shopping and entertainment complex on Okaloosa Island, revealed that almost no one was wearing a mask.
Among those not doing so were Gary Boutte, his wife, Tiffany, and their two children, 4 and 9-years-old.
“We’re trying to stay safe,” Gary Boutte said as he and his family made their way up the stairs to The Boardwalk, noting that the family does pay attention to social distancing.
But at the same time, he said, the family was eager to get out of their Houston home after three months of mostly staying there, and decided to take a vacation on the Gulf Coast.
He and his wife are mindful of the potential risk to their children, he said, but then he added, “I guess everything’s a risk these days.”
“It’s everywhere,” he said of COVID-19.
Others approached at The Boardwalk on Monday afternoon, none of them wearing masks, declined to comment for this story.
And Okaloosa County isn’t the only place where scant attention is being paid to the public health guidance to wear masks as a means of helping to slow the spread of COVID-19.
In Walton County on Monday, the late-morning crowd at the Winn-Dixie grocery store on Poinciana Boulevard — where many of the thousands of visitors staying in the condominiums lining Scenic Gulf Drive stock up on provisions — well under a quarter of the people lining its narrow aisles, where social distancing is difficult, if not impossible, were wearing masks.
Among those choosing not to wear masks were the Ruiz family — Jazmin, her husband, Robert, and their three children — vacationing here from Texas.
“I guess sometimes we do (wear masks),” said Jazmin Ruiz as she and her family walked across the parking lot toward the Winn-Dixie. “But lately we just kind of haven’t been (wearing them).”
She went on to note, though, that one of the reasons the family decided to vacation in the Destin area is the relatively low number of COVID-19 cases.
Another vacationer stocking up at the Winn-Dixie on Monday, Phildessa McLain of Chattanooga, Tennessee, was among the relatively few people wearing a mask at the Winn-Dixie on Monday morning.
“I just think it’s right for us to do,” she said, adding that wearing masks “will make the process (of getting through the pandemic) go a little smoother.”
McLain indicated that she suspects one reason for people not wearing masks is that people may simply be less careful on vacation.
But, she added, “I try not to be judgmental.”
Still, she said, far more people in Chattanooga than in this area are wearing masks.
Nearby, and perhaps proving McLain’s point about people not being as careful on vacation as at home, an Atlanta man not wearing a mask said he had simply forgotten it when he headed to the store from his family’s vacation accommodations.
Tommy — he declined to provide his last name — said he and his family routinely wear masks when they’re out.
“We believe this is a real thing and we are acting accordingly,” he said.
The Walton County Board of County Commissioners is slated to get an update on the COVID-19 situation in the county at their Tuesday morning meeting from Holly Holt, administrator of the Florida Department of Health in Walton County.
The briefings from Holt have become a fixture of the Walton County Board of Commissioners meetings in the weeks since the county saw its first COVID-19 case.
The health department was not immediately available for comment Monday on what Holt might tell commissioners Tuesday. But late last week, Commission Chairman Bill Chapman said officials “will continue to monitor the COVID-19 pandemic closely and will continue to focus on the health and safety of our residents, businesses and visitors.”
And, Chapman added, the county’s emergency management department is continuing, in cooperation with the county health department and state and federal resources, to develop contingency plans for use in the event of a spike in local COVID-19 cases.
However, the chairman said, “At this time, there is not a specific number of new cases that would prompt an implementation of any contingency ... plan or process.”