Is wearing a mask in public too much to ask for as Palm Coast and Flagler reopen? Does it infringe on individuals’ liberties? “Masks have now been a significant part of that dialogue as we move to reopening, and how that impacts those numbers,” Palm Coast Mayor Milissa Holland says of the next phase in the coronavirus emergency.
The issue took up a long portion of the weekly virtual town hall anchored by Holland on Wednesday. The answer from the experts on the panel–two physicians, the Flagler Health Department’s chief and Palm Coast’s fire chief–was an unequivocal No. (See: “How and When to Wear a Mask, and How Not To.”
And one physician went as far as proposing that local government should exercise its authority to write ordinances requiring the wearing of masks in certain public places, while a fire chief said shoppers should take matters in their own hand and pressure store owners or managers to institute and enforce mask-wearing rules.
“I understand the civil liberties point of view with it for sure,” said Dr. Vincent DeGennaro Jr., an epidemiologist, global health specialist and the chief executive officer at Abacus Pharma International in Miami. He’d called in by phone. “I think we sacrifice a lot of our civil liberties in many different ways.” He cited severe restrictions when flying, vaccine requirements for children in schools, the mandated wearing of seatbelts, prohibitions on drunk driving. “There’s a lot of things that would impinge on your ‘civil liberties’ in the name of public health. So I think there’s plenty of legal precedent. I don’t think it’s a slippery slope at all.”
The more important point, DeGennaro said of wearing masks, is that it reduces the transmission of the coronavirus. “You’re not wearing the mask for yourself. You’re wearing the mask for the people around you,” he said. “I just took what, three planes and two trains in the last week, and I feel very confident that I don’t have anything, because not only was I wearing a mask, but every other single person was wearing a mask. So it’s really going to drop the transmission rate. And most importantly, if we could come out of our holes, go back to work and restart the economy, and the only sacrifice we had to make is wear a mask and wash our hands, isn’t that a trade-off you’d make? I’d urge that if the county had this authority, to mandate masks in public settings where there’s going to be more than two people, be it a store and other things, because it’s not right that someone who is vulnerable has to risk their life to go shopping because someone else wants to be defiant. You could issue tickets just like you do with seat belts. Like I said, there’s plenty of legal precedent for this, and I think if we’re going to open up, we’re going to have some form of that.”
For now there is no taste among local officials to mandate the wearing of masks in public, and no taste among local law enforcement to enforce such an order, if it were in place. But DeGennaro’s proposal is not quite radical. On April 20, Connecticut enacted an order requiring all persons age 2 and older to wear masks when using public transportation and taxis, in public places where the six-foot separation can’t be maintained, and for customers and employees of essential businesses. Hawaii, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island all have similar rules, with variations.
But mask-wearing is becoming emblematic of the shift in the debate over Covid-19–from fighting the virus to arguing over freedoms as communities reopen. It’s easy for many to plaster slogans like “we’re in this together” on their Facebook page, but for some, it’s harder to translate that to action when it matters.
Protests by fringe groups aside, an overwhelming majority of Americans still favored stay-at-home orders in mid- to-late late April, and a poll this week has 70 percent of Americans wanting President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence wearing masks when they travel. Trump has consistently undermined his public health experts, refusing to wear a mask. Pence rarely does so. Another poll showed that 55 percent of Americans who left their home last week wore masks.
But minorities are using the wearing of masks–or the refusal to wear a ask–as a marker delimiting their personal freedoms and right to take what risks they choose, misconstruing the purpose and science behind the masks.
Dr. Stephen Bickel, the medical director at the Flagler and Volusia health departments, had been a skeptic on mask-wearing in the earlier weeks of the emergency. Like a convert, he’s now a pro-mask “fanatic,” he said Wednesday.
“Here are the reasons,” he said, framing his answer in his characteristic but accessible language of a science journal abstract: “A, if you look at the countries that have been highly successful combatting this, mostly in Asia, they’ve adopted near-universal mask wearing. I don’t think that’s an accident. Secondly, as we look to open up the community, which we know is necessary, there’s clearly a risk of this thing surging more, at least expanding to some degree. So we want to pick the least intrusive measures that we can adopt to prevent the spread, and mask wearing is very high on the list. There are models that have been constructed showing that if 60 percent of the people wear masks at any one moment, and the masks are 60 percent effective, that alone is enough to get the R0, which is the spread coefficient, down to 1, which is basically at that point the spread stops multiplying. It just stays level. Then you throw in any other measure and it’s additives. So it just seems to me, it’s kind of a slam dunk policy to adopt. You can’t force it on people, I understand that. We have our interest in civil liberties. But in terms of just promoting it and people realizing they’re doing this to support their community, to protect their fellow residents, I think it’s just something that we should embrace as a highly effective, minimally intrusive way to really keep this thing under control, an additive to all the other measures that we’re going to adopt.”
Bob Snyder, the director of the Flagler Health Department, said wearing masks locally should be universal, “especially for indoor public settings, like grocery stores, like restaurants, pharmacies.” It can be a surgical mask. It can also be “a bandana, a scarf, just any cloth material, something,” he said. “That this is a solid strategy for reducing the transmission of Covid-19.”
But local officials know the limitations they’re up against–the me-first attitude that prevails among certain groups.
“The reality of the situation is this,” Palm Coast Fire Chief Jerry Forte said. “People will do what they want, and everybody believes to a certain urgency what this Covid virus is. So if there’s a young individual who is healthy and they feel they don’t want to wear a mask, we are not going to force them to [wear] a mask. There’s no way we could do that. The actions of those not wearing a mask may be of little consequence to themselves, but [to] the vulnerable population in the city, it’s a very big deal.”
Those who are most vulnerable are 65 and over, and those who have an underlying condition: 84 percent of Florida’s more than 1,800 people killed by the virus are 65 and older.
Shoppers, Forte said, have “the ability to go to the proprietor of the store, the store manager, and urge them to change their culture and their behavior, allowing people to come in with a mask on. If we can’t push it from a legislative point of view, certainly the people that are going to these stores can urge these changes at the shopper’s level.”
Wednesday’s full Palm Coast Town Hall on Covid-19. The discussion about masks begins around minute 33.