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Mask mandates face GOP resistance across Florida

Staff Writer
The News Herald
The News Herald

Steve Vernon needed a haircut and his barber required that he wear a mask, so he complied.

If businesses want to require customers to wear masks, that’s their right, Vernon said. People can choose to shop elsewhere if they disagree.

But if the government starts mandating masks, Vernon is prepared to engage in “civil disobedience.”

“I will not comply,” said Vernon, the president of the Lakewood Ranch Republican Club. “You can have your mask edict, resolution, whatever it is. I will not comply.”

Wearing masks to limit the spread of the coronavirus has become the latest hot button issue in the culture wars, and the debate is heating up in Florida as the state experiences a big spike in coronavirus cases.

The surging caseload has led to a wave of new mask regulations across the state.

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Masks are now required in certain public settings in Tampa, Miami, St. Petersburg, Orlando and a number of other Florida cities and counties.

Officials in the city of Sarasota, Sarasota County and Manatee County have all discussed the mask issue in recent days. The city of Holmes Beach on Anna Maria Island approved a mask requirement.

Most of the Florida communities with new mask rules are controlled by Democrats. Democrats tend to be more concentrated — and control the levers of government — in larger urban areas where the coronavirus often is more prevalent, but they also have been much more willing to embrace mask-wearing.

A Gallup poll from April found that 75% of Democrats said they had worn a mask in public, while less than half of Republicans said the same.

A Quinnipiac University poll from May found that 64% of people believe “everyone should be required to wear face masks in public.” But 87% of Democrats felt that way while only 40% of Republicans did.

Vernon said he has two big reasons for opposing mandatory mask rules, he believes they infringe on his rights and that they are being pushed by Democrats to scare people, hurt the economy and weaken President Donald Trump.

“It’s political, that’s why so many people, Republicans, object to this,” Vernon said. “Because two major reasons: it’s all about Trump, disliking Trump, wanting to hurt the economy ... that’s really what it’s about. That’s my conservative Republican side. My libertarian side says, wait a second, why are all these people telling me what to do with my own body?”

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Trump has stoked anti-mask sentiment, telling the Wall Street Journal recently that people are wearing masks to show they disapprove of him.

Sarasota County Democratic Party Chair JoAnne DeVries subsequently posted a meme on Facebook that shows a woman in a mask and reads: “I wasn’t aware that my mask could both protect me from a deadly virus and show my disapproval of Trump BUT I WILL WEAR IT EVEN MORE PROUDLY NOW.”

Some Republican-led municipalities have rejected mandatory mask requirements.

The Manatee County Commission, which has a GOP majority, this week opted against a local ordinance mandating masks in public.

And Florida GOP leaders are challenging local mask regulations in court.

Republican state Rep. Anthony Sabatini recently filed a lawsuit against Orange County over the county’s local mask ordinance, and Leon County GOP Chair Evan Power joined with Sabatini to sue that county after a mask ordinance was adopted last week.

Testimony against Palm Beach County’s mask order during a meeting last week went viral, with one woman accusing county leaders of “obeying the Devil’s laws..

Public health officials say they’re dismayed that wearing masks has become so political.

“Seems to me it’s a relatively straightforward thing to do and has nothing do with politics, it’s about what is the best approach,” said Dr. Marissa Levine, a public health expert at the University of South Florida.

“I would love it for the public to just do it and not have to mandate it, but if we get to the point where a mandate is the only way forward,” it’s something policymakers should consider, added Levine, a professor of public health and family medicine at USF who leads the school’s Center for Leadership in Public Health Practice.

See our complete coverage of the coronavirus outbreak

The Florida Medical Association, which represents more than 25,000 physicians, has come out in favor of mandatory mask requirements.

Dr. Ronald Giffler, the FMA president, said his group “encourages local officials to adopt regulations requiring individuals to wear face coverings in public places.”

“The science is clear,” Giffler added. “Asymptomatic infected individuals can release infectious aerosol particles while breathing and speaking. Not wearing a mask or face covering increases exposure, whereas universal masking greatly reduces the spread of viral particles. The message is simple: For the sake of your health and the health of everyone around you, Florida’s doctors want you to wear a mask.”

But Sarasota state Sen. Joe Gruters, who chairs the Florida GOP, said public health professionals deserve some of the blame for resistance to mask wearing. He noted that early in the pandemic there was not an emphasis on the general public wearing masks.

“What they did by doing that is with the confusion they caused a much bigger issue,” Gruters said.

The guidance on masks has evolved throughout the pandemic.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, said recently that the messaging has changed, in part, because early on there was a need to conserve personal protective equipment for health care professionals.

Those concerns have ebbed, and new information has come out about the benefits of wearing masks.

With coronavirus cases surging in Florida, some view mask-wearing as a way to protect the economy and limit the possibility of another shutdown.

“If we want to keep the economy and public health situation in recovery mode, people must keep wearing, and if you’re not, start wearing, protective face masks around others,” Sarasota City Manager Tom Barwin wrote recently.

Local government officials are at the forefront of the mask debate in Florida.

Some Democrats are calling for a statewide mask rule. Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the only statewide elected Democrat, said mandating masks in public statewide is “is common sense, violates no one’s liberties, and follows the lead of 18 other states.”

“If we’re to beat this virus together, we must all act together, with all Floridians doing their part,” Fried added.

But Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, has rejected a statewide mask rule, saying “you catch more flies with honey than vinegar.” The governor also argues that a statewide mandate would be overkill because the virus is more prevalent in certain communities. Gruters agrees with that approach.

Gruters said he tries to wear a mask when he goes to the grocery store “not so much out of concern for myself, but the well-being and thoughtfulness I have for others.” He recently posted a picture of himself on Facebook wearing a mask. But he doesn’t think government should get involved.

“I think it should be up to individual businesses,” Gruters said, adding: “And individual shoppers have the right to decide if they want to shop there or not.”

Some Republicans are dismayed that there is so much resistance to mask requirements.

Manatee County Commissioner Misty Servia posted a video on Facebook this week lamenting that the commission opted against a proposal that would have required “mandatory masks inside businesses only when social distancing could not be accomplished.”

“Yes, I’m a Republican and, yes, I’m a very pro-business Republican and I’ve got to tell you, I am very concerned about our businesses,” Servia said. “I don’t know how our businesses are going to succeed with this virus spiking the way it is and that is the reason that I made the motion.”

“Now some of our Republican friends say that our civil rights are more important and no one should be forced to wear a mask if they don’t want to,” Servia continued. “And to that I say: ‘You know what? Civil rights are important to me too. But if your civil rights allow you to not wear a mask and you infect me, my civil rights are being affected.’”