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Florida Commissioner under fire for seeking help from anti-mask group

Jim Little Pensacola News
Journal
Walton Sun

Commissioner Doug Underhill of Escambia County is facing criticism for putting out a nation-wide call for people to lobby against the Escambia County Commission from passing an emergency ordinance to require masks in public.

Read More: Coronavirus mask mandate: Florida County judge says ‘no constitutional right infringed’

Underhill made a post in an anti-mask Facebook group on Friday calling on the members of the group from all over the country to write to the Escambia County Commission to oppose any mask mandate.

"We successfully fought off mask mandate a couple weeks ago but the pressure is continuing," Underhill wrote. "The Mask proponents are working harder than we are, and they could win. Please email all 5 Commissioners and tell them no to masks. In the absence of logic, it is a popularity game, so numbers count."

The group called No Mas(K) has more than 5,700 members and is made of posts of people sharing photos defying local mask rules, skepticism over the effectiveness of mask and even conspiracy theories claiming the coronavirus pandemic is a hoax.

Related: Florida beach lifeguards adapt to COVID-19 preventative measures

Underhill came under fire from other Pensacola-area social media users who saw the post.

Underhill defended his post calling on people from across the country to weigh in on what Escambia County should do by saying it was a national level discussion and compared the complaint of going outside the county to the same criticism made against activists during the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

"If you look at us historically, was it wrong for the civil rights movement to have people come out of town to go and march across the Pettus Bridge," Underhill said. "Of course, it wasn't. There's no reason to limit the dialogue to a certain group of people or to a geographic area."

Escambia County Commissioner Jeff Bergosh said Underhill's move was a stunt that "muddied the waters" on the emails commissioners are receiving from constituents.

"From my perspective, I'm working hard to learn as much as I can to represent the citizens here that I serve," Bergosh said. "It's cluttering up my ability to do that in my office and for my aide, when we're getting emails from all around the country, from a very small minority of people that are not going to be subject to it. They don't even live here."

Underhill said he didn't believe it was right to make it a crime to not wear a mask in public.

"There's this small faction of very, very liberal people who are pushing to make it a crime in Escambia County to not have a mask, and so I made a point to get that discussion out into the public," Underhill said.

Underhill also called mask ordinances unconstitutional. Florida judges, however, have upheld local mask mandates as constitutional.

The city of Pensacola instituted an emergency mask ordinance requiring people in indoor public spaces to wear masks or risk paying fines.

Pensacola Police spokesman Mike Wood confirmed to the News Journal on Monday that the city had not issued any fines under the ordinance.

Pensacola Mayor Grover Robinson, who has called on the county to follow the city's lead, said Monday during his weekly press conference that the city has sent code enforcement out to a couple of businesses who were not following the ordinance, but the businesses have quickly complied.

"I see more people complying than not complying," Robinson said. "I think that's a good thing for us to see, and that's probably why we've seen our (daily) hospitalization numbers kind of begin to flatline. Hopefully we're going to start getting a trend downward. If we can do that. We'll be in a good position."

Earlier this month, Escambia County commissioners rejected the idea of a county-wide mask ordinance and instead opted to spend $250,000 on a public advertising campaign encouraging people to wear mask and practice social distancing with federal funding from the CARES Act.

The Escambia County Commission could debate the issue at its next meeting on Aug. 6.

Bergosh has been against instituting a mask mandate and said the public advertising campaign was the right move. On Monday, however, Bergosh said he's now open to the idea after a family friend died from COVID-19 and speaking to the doctor who treated him.

"It hit me like a ton of bricks, to be honest," Bergosh said. "I'm open to looking at it. I just I want the science behind it. I've had a hard time getting that."