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CORONAVIRUS: Walton County Commission takes no action on mask ordinance

Jim Thompson
jthompson@nwfdailynews.com
Northwest Florida Daily News

DeFUNIAK SPRINGS — After hearing nearly an hour of public comment — most of it from a political perspective, some of it threatening willful non-compliance — Walton County commissioners sat in silence Tuesday, rejecting any enactment of a countywide mask ordinance in connection with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

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But as the meeting was winding down, commissioners indicated they could consider a non-binding resolution recommending the wearing of face masks at their Aug. 11 meeting.

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“I’ve got no grief with doing that,” said Commission Chairman Bill Chapman. County counsel will prepare a resolution for commission review and possible action.

The commission’s inaction came just days after the county administration — as distinct from the commission — implemented masking and temperature-check requirements for many county offices, with other county offices having already instituted protocols to help slow the spread of COVID-19.

Although public comments were much more pointed Tuesday, the commission meeting was a virtual repeat of the July 14 commission meeting, where after lengthy public comment, commissioners asked Assistant County Attorney Heather Christman to prepare a report on the enforceability of a mask ordinance.

Christman’s report, made available last week, indicated commissioners did have a legally defensible option, if they chose to develop an ordinance based on a Leon County ordinance that has withstood a court challenge.

The Leon County ordinance requires masks be worn inside all businesses, with exceptions including children younger than 6; people with medical conditions that create breathing problems, and bar and restaurant patrons while they are eating or drinking. Violations of the ordinance carry a fine ranging from $50 to $250 or more.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended since April that masks be worn by everyone except infants “in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.” Additionally, reviews of various studies published in medical journals including The Lancet, the International Journal of Nursing Studies, Health Affairs and elsewhere have found that masks either do, or could, play a role in reducing the spread of COVID-19.

On Tuesday, Walton commissioners had little to say prior to the comment period, with none of them advancing any motion on enacting an ordinance, or not doing so, before the public weighed in.

“We will not comply,” said Matt Christopher, one of a number of people who brought a limited-government perspective to the mask issue.

Christopher contended Walton County’s COVID-19 statistics, most notably its tally of just a dozen deaths since March, weren’t sufficient for a countywide mask mandate.

“Our stats alone in this county do not justify actions that take away the liberties of your constituents,” Christopher said.

As of Tuesday, Walton County had reported 1,094 positive COVID-19 cases since March.That’s up from two weeks ago, when the county had a total of 622 postive COVID-19 cases.

Joey Lasalle, another opponent of the mask ordinance, asked commissioners, “Can you think of any more fundamental civil right than to breathe clean air? ... It is your job to protect the liberties of your people, not to practice medicine.”

Also bringing a limited-government perspective to Tuesday’s discussion was local business owner Mallory Fields, who told commissioners, “To wear a mask should be a choice, not something forced upon us.”

Another person called a mask mandate “tyranny,” and another called masks “a symbol of our government trying to tell us to cover our mouths and shut up.”

Among those on the other side of the issue Tuesday was Samantha Herring, a vocal proponents of a mask ordinance.

Urging commissioners “to err on the side of saving lives,” Herring also countered the argument that Walton County’s relatively few COVID-19 deaths was sufficient reason not to enact a mask mandate.

“It’s not so much the deaths, as it is the illness,” she told commissioners, citing the case of a 22-yer-old restaurant worker she knows who now “has blisters on her lungs” as a result of COVID-19.

“That’s something I’d like you to think about — the constitutional rights of those who are vulnerable,” Herring said.

Roger Hall, regional president of Ascension Sacred Heart’s hospital in Northwest Florida, was at the meeting to talk with commissioners about how hospitals are handling the demands of COVID-19, but he also spoke on the masking issue.

“When I look at what’s transpired over the last couple of weeks, I see enormous change (in terms of the number of COVID-19 cases,” Hall told commissioners, adding that a mask ordinance would be “asking people to care for each other.”

Dave Rauschkolb, owner of a Seaside restaurant which closed for a few days some weeks ago after a few workers tested positive for COVID-19, told commissioners that masks are “not a political issue” and the pandemic “will equally effect Democrats and Republicans and independents.”