Flagler County Health Department Director Bob Snyder is ardently for a mask mandate. So is Dr. Stephen Bickel, the medical director at the Flagler and Volusia health departments. Palm Coast Mayor Milissa Holland has been a mask advocate, wearing a one during town halls and public meetings alongside her city manager and fire chief. County Commission Chairman Dave Sullivan supports a mask mandate, So does Jane Mealy, who chairs the Flagler Beach City Commission and brought up the matter at a meeting a week ago. And Jonathan Lord, Flagler County’s emergency management director, has been repeating the mask-is-your-friend mantra for months as he’s plotted the trajectory of the coronavirus emergency in Flagler, where he considers infection counts far below what they really are.
Yet not a single government in Flagler County has a mask mandate even as governments all around and across Florida, including Daytona Beach, New Smyrna Beach and St. Augustine, have adopted mandates (St. Johns County rejected a mandate this week). The scientifically inaccurate and risky but trendy notion among some that masks are “bullshit,” as County Commissioner Greg Hansen described it–citing, also inaccurately, “half the medical community”–has held sway in Flagler, at least officially.
“We’re going to be kind of last county in the state to probably do this, I don’t know, the way we’re going right now,” Sullivan said today, more despairingly than approvingly.
That may be about to change. As Florida hit another record number of new infections in a day according to figures reported today by the Florida Health Department, exceeding 10,000, and Flagler County following apace, with 61 new infections in the last six days–15 recorded just today–and 116 in the last 13 days, and with state daily death counts increasing (67 today), top officials are now lining up to ask for a mask mandate. (The nation hit a single-day record too, today, exceeding 53,000 new infections.)
Palm Coast Mayor Milissa Holland is asking the City Council at its Tuesday meeting to pass such a measure. Mealy will be asking the Flagler Beach City Commission to do likewise at the commission’s meeting on Thursday. Sullivan said he will be calling either Lord or Jerry Cameron, the county administrator, today or tomorrow to get their input. But he wants the county to enact a mask mandate, and says it can be done by the administration through its current state of emergency.
“I will be asking the council on Tuesday for what I feel is an appropriate ask of our residents in order to keep our businesses from shutting down again,” Holland said, not long after she’d been in communications with a top AdventHealth Palm Coast official who told her that “their numbers are reaching a level that’s higher than April.”
Just last week the city issued a joint proclamation with other governments imploring–but not requiring–residents to wear masks. “However, the numbers are the numbers and we have to be mindful of that, and we’ve always said from the beginning that when they reach a level we know is critical for us to take a different approach, we will, and we have to.”
Florida has become the epicenter of the nation’s Covid-19 crisis, with a spike starting in June, weeks after the state quickly ramped up its reopening, overwhelming numbers seen during the first wave in April. Well over half the pandemic’s infections have developed in the state since its Phase 2 reopening. The proportion in Flagler is just under half the county’s 340 infections.
“The numbers are very concerning and I do believe it’s time we take action,” Holland said today. “It’s unfortunate we’ve gotten here again, but we must as a community. We are each individual responsible for the wealth and wellness of our community as a whole. Again, for us not to have a total shut down of our economy, I think it’s absolutely necessary to find ways to help mitigate the spread and the positive cases right here in our community. But I would really like the council to weigh in, what they feel is appropriate, especially because it is mandate.”
The mask item was not on the Flagler Beach City Commission agenda a week ago. Mealy brought it up during commissioner comment. The commission seemed divided or non-committal. “The very next day St. Augustine and Daytona passed theirs, and I was like, couldn’t you have done it a day earlier?” It’ll be a commission item next week.
Sullivan said he would bring it up for a vote at a commission meeting, but there isn’t one scheduled until July 13.
“I have told everybody that I’m in favor of wearing masks or we’re going to have to close everything down,” Sullivan said. “We should enforce mask wearing. I don’t care who hears me or whatever. I will approve it if it gets to me, but It can be done without my approval.” He said the county administration and its emergency management division can declare a mask mandate immediately–which is what he wants. “It’s time that we mandate mask wearing if we want to keep things open. If we don’t do it, we’ll end up closing everything down again. I don’t know what else I can say. Most of these decisions have been made without having come before the county commission.”
Sullivan repeated almost word for word what Bickel, the county health department’s medical director, has been stressing for weeks, and spoke of again in an interview Wednesday: that it is not a choice between keeping the economy open and keeping people healthy. Rather, the only way to keep the economy open is to keep people healthy, through minor inconveniences like wearing masks, which won’t eliminate but can significantly diminish the rate of infection, and through a coordinated effort and message from local policy makers.
“We’ve just never embraced this seriously,” Bickel said. So while the health department is having to significantly increase its staffing to do the required contact tracing when new infections are declared, its officials watch a community still refusing to do its part on an individual level to slow down the community spread–and governments so far refusing to ratify the message by codifying it. “If you care about your local economy, you should wear a mask,” Bickel said.
Sullivan hadn’t spoken to Bickel recently. But he echoed his logic. “If you want to keep things open, make masks mandatory. It’s not an either or,” Sullivan said, conceding that a month ago, when Flagler’s numbers were not as concerning, he would not have been as adamant.
Holland echoed Bickel as well. “To Dr. Bickel’s point, we really none of us want to see us go back down to where the governor shut down the entire state of Florida. If we each do our part when were out and having to be indoors, it helps mitigate the spread of this very deadly virus.”
“I don’t know why Bob Snyder can’t almost do it on his own, he just comes out and says it’s a medical emergency,” the chairman of the county commission said.
Snyder has repeatedly spoken in favor of a mask mandate. He spoke with county and Palm Coast’s administrative leaders and did not get a sense that they were willing to go with a mandate. But he said he himself cannot impose one unilaterally. It’s a policy decision.
“I don’t know what else to do. I’m getting calls from people around town, upset, don’t think we’re doing the right thing about Covid-19.” He’s even been getting calls about Flagler Beach making buses available for July 4 revelers. People often confuse the county with its cities, though the county has very limited authority over city events.
Flagler Beach has been taking flack for making shuttle buses available this weekend for visitors to the beach, even though several counties in South Florida have shut down their beaches for the holiday and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top federal infectious disease expert, this week urged Americans to limit their July 4 activities and warned of the potential for 100,000 daily cases ahead in the nation. Flagler Beach’s buses had been contracted ahead of the emergency, with the fireworks in mind. The fireworks have been cancelled. The city is still paying for the buses.
“The busing was supposed to make the parking safer, because you saw what happened when we first opened the beach, people were parking every where and on people’s grass,” Mealy said. There’s also been a change in regulations: when the city first announced the availability of buses earlier this week, it said masks would be optional. No longer. Masks on board will be mandatory, and buses will run at a maximum of 50 percent capacity, Mealy said.