FORT WALTON BEACH — After 3 1/2 hours of discussion centered on whether to implement a mask mandate in the city, the City Council on Tuesday agreed to take no official action.
As the COVID-19 pandemic marches on, the council at its special meeting heard comments from more than a dozen people, most of whom did not favor mandatory face coverings. Some of those against a mandate spoke of the dangers of government overreach and alleged junk science.
CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: Outbreak reported at Okaloosa youth facility, 3 more deaths reported locally
The board also discussed the many emails residents sent to the council and other city officials on the contentious mask issue. Of the 89 emails sent directly to City Clerk Kim Barnes, 72 expressed support for a mask mandate while 17 stated opposition.
Early on during Tuesday’s session, Dr. Karen Chapman, director of the Okaloosa County Department of Health, said via a video call that the current positivity rate of the coronavirus in the county is more than 12%, and there has been no sustained downward trend.
“Our target should be to get to a 5% positivity rate or below, while still waiting for a vaccine,” Chapman said.
Someone who is outside and able to social distance at least 6 feet away from other people does not need to wear a mask, she said. Wearing one, however, is particularly important while inside a business or other indoor location in order to help reduce and slow the spread of the virus, she said.
“This is a very important mitigation factor that we’re not all practicing,” Chapman said.
The coronavirus is projected out in droplets of moisture every time an infected person talks and exhales, she said.
“The cloth masks serve as a barrier and trap the moisture droplets that come out of our mouth,” Chapman said.
While wearing a face covering, Fort Walton Beach Medical Center Chief Operating Officer Todd Jackson told the council: “Remember, this mask doesn’t protect me from you. It protects you from me.”
But Stacie Hoard, co-owner of De’France Indoor Flea Market in downtown FWB, told the council that most of the mask-wearing people who visit her store and other places are not wearing them correctly.
She also said her customers don’t need a mask because they have plenty of room to social distance in her store, which totals more than 13,000 square feet.
Too, “I don’t want to be told I have to wear a mask in my business where I’m working 12 or more hours per day,” Hoard said.
Local auto dealer Travis Smith said the decision to wear a mask should fall on each individual, and that he doesn’t believe police should be responsible for regulating mask wearing. And Air Force veteran Melissa Martinez said she cannot wear a mask for health reasons and that her healthcare decisions are between her and her doctor.
Local nurse Sonya Vasquez, whose mother is battling the coronavirus and who has had several loved ones die from COVID-19, said, “We don’t know for sure if the mask works in reducing spread, but let’s just try it.”
In response to a question from the council, city Police Chief Robert Bage said various mask-mandate ordinances in other municipalities have been held up as constitutional.
Councilwoman Amy Jamieson said while people should wear a mask if they feel the need to protect themselves, a citywide mask mandate isn’t necessary.
Citing various concerns, such as churches having to abide by a mask mandate, Councilman David Schmidt made a motion to table the issue.
That motion failed, and the discussion continued.
“I am for a mask ordinance within the city limits,” Councilman Kirby Locklear said. “The COVID-19 crisis poses a danger to the health and safety of the general public. Since re-opening (the overall local economy), the positivity rate (in the county) has jumped from 3% to over 12%.”
The bottom line, Locklear said, is that a mask mandate would help businesses stay open and avoid another shutdown and help local military members stay healthy and fulfill their mission.
“Make no mistake, we are at war against an unforeseen enemy,” he said.
Councilman MG Moran said auto garage workers forced to wear masks all day would be uncomfortable, while office workers would find it much easier to follow a mask mandate.
Councilman Mike Holmes said he’s against such a mandate.
“We need to encourage mask wearing, but we don’t need to increase the anxiety by creating opportunities for people to challenge others who do not wear a mask,” Holmes said.
Required mask wearing is a state issue, said Councilman Nic Allegretto, who added that Gov. Ron DeSantis “really let us down on this issue” by not implementing a mask mandate months ago.
“Literally everyone knows that (wearing masks) works,” Allegretto said. “That said, I don’t know if a mask mandate would do a whole lot of good. It’s important that we make our position known that we support wearing masks while doing business in the city.”
“The last thing we need is another government mandating anything,” Councilman Nathan Kelley said.
Locklear made a motion to have staff create an emergency ordinance mandating mask wearing at business establishments in the city, but it died for lack of a second.
The council later discussed a possible nonbinding resolution that would encourage people in Fort Walton Beach to wear masks and take other protective measures against the virus.
However, “I heard someone tonight say wearing a mask is just to make people feel good,” Locklear said. “This (proposed) resolution is just to make them feel good. It has no teeth.”
Shortly afterward, the council let the mask mandate discussion fizzle out.
Last week, a majority of the Mary Esther City Council approved an ordinance that, starting this Friday, will require individuals to wear face coverings while in Mary Esther business establishments.
Mary Esther was the first local municipality to enact a mandatory mask mandate.
The County Commission last week approved a requirement that, beginning Saturday, will require businesses countywide to post their mask policies on their entry doors.
Municipalities have the option of opting out of the ordinance.
A violation of the county’s ordinance or Mary Esther’s ordinance is a noncriminal infraction, with penalties that include a $50 fine for the first offense.