The Palm Coast City Council this evening voted 5-0 to enact the first mask mandate of any government in Flagler County, describing it as an urgent necessity as coronavirus cases spike in the county and the state. Flagler Beach and Bunnell are considering a similar proposal on Thursday.
County government for now has no such plan, though Palm Coast’s action could add pressure on other governments to follow through.
The mandate carries no penalties for violators, at least not directly. Nor is the city itself pursuing a proposal by Sheriff Rick Staly, who opposes mask mandates for being “unenforceable,” in his word, to require businesses to call for non-wearers to be trespassed in which case sheriff’s deputies could intervene. But the city is leaving it up to businesses to go that route themselves should they choose to do so.
The mandate applies only indoors, in public places such as businesses and public buildings. Many businesses, including governments, the hospital, clinics and doctors’ offices, have already made mask-wearing mandatory, refusing entry to those who do not comply.
Not only was there no dissent in the council’s vote, but council member Eddie Branquinho, who lost his son, a nurse at AdventHealth Palm Coast, just two weeks ago, verged on tears and Bob Cuff on indignation, as they rejected arguments that wearing a mask infringed on personal liberties or went counter to constitutional protections.
“Unfortunately, a lot of the people I know are making this not a health issue, they’re making this a political issue, to the point that they feel that the inconvenience, they relate it to constitutional rights,” Branquinho said. “Well, let me tell you about inconvenience. My son passed away less than two weeks ago.” (Branquinho’s son, who was in his 20s, died of complications from an issue unrelated to Covid-19.) “This kid wore his mask 12 hours a day. So I feel no sympathy for you, with all due respect, for not wanting to wear your mask one hour when you go to the supermarket. He came home many times with his ears, blisters on his ears, behind his ears. Twelve hours a day before God took him away, as a nurse, he was wearing his mask. So with all due respect, wear your mask with the same honor and the same respect that my son did for every single one of the people he took care of at the hospital.”
Cuff recalled the time just weeks ago when the city was criticized for the stay-at-home mandate in April, when council members got many emails telling them it was unnecessary as residents wrote them that they were responsible and would know to do the right thing, that they were mature adults. “I’d like to think all those people were sincere and all those people are still healthy, and were telling the truth,” Cuff said. “What we’re seeing in the last couple of weeks here is that regardless of how many responsible people we have, and there are many out there, there aren’t enough of them. And we need to do whatever we can to get people to wear masks. To echo Council member Branquinho’s statement: this isn’t a political issue.
Audio: The Council Members’ Statements
Cuff, an attorney, then tapped his Demosthenes: “I don’t care if you want to wear a red mask that says MAGA, if you want to wear a blue mask that says Biden 2020, Black Lives Matter, blue lives matter, all lives matter or unicorns and rainbows. People that are out in public, in situations where they cannot be sure they’ll be able to stay far enough away from their fellow residents need to have a mask on. The excuses that I have seen offered by the anti-mask people on the claim, the legal basis, why they can’t be compelled to wear a mask, because of the Constitutional privacy laws in the Florida Constitution, it’s the same as 5 year olds trying to tell their parents why they shouldn’t have to go to bed at their regular bed time. They’re makeweight arguments by people that have agendas other than the best interests of their fellow citizens. So I don’t like to tell anybody what they have to do, what they ought to do. I hope we can rely on the common sense and the common decency of our citizens. But if we don’t do something to start turning these numbers around and getting them headed in the right direction, the economic impact on this community, on this state, on the nation, is going to be enormous, even compared to what we’ve already had to suffer.”
He concluded: “We’re supposed to be the smartest species on the planet, and I hate to be harsh, but there’s a lot of people I run into every time I have to go to Publix or Lowes or any place else, that aren’t living up to that description. So please, please. It isn’t over. It’s not going away because we wish it will. We need to live with it and we need to deal with it if we want to keep our community open, keep our citizens working, keep our economy running, and keep as many people as possible healthy and prevent the kind of needless deaths that we’ve seen so far.”
“Councilman Branquinho and Councilman Cuff pretty well nailed it,” Council member Jack Howell said. “Sometimes in government we have to protect the public from themselves.” He said this was one of those scenarios, with room for exceptions. “But I’m one of those guys at age 77 that’s in that high-risk category, and I’m trying to make it to 78.” Council member Nick Klufas was equally categorical.
Even though there’s no provision for penalties, the city’s measure, on paper, “provides a default provision for enforcement,” City Attorney Bill Reischmann said, though it’s not the sort of enforcement that the sheriff will pursue. Reischmann also opened the door to the possibility of code enforcement citations, though that, too, will not be pursued for now.
Palm Coast Mayor Milissa Holland said last week she would propose the mask mandate as Covid-19 numbers increased and she got reports from AdventHealth that Covid-related patients were beginning to exceed numbers seen there in April, at the previous height of the pandemic.
“We have come to a moment in time where we do have to make a decision on what we feel is responsible as a governing body,” Holland said, citing 43 percent of residents at risk for Covid-19. “We do have to consider those that fall in that category, that do have to go out,” and can’t fill prescriptions and shop for groceries otherwise.
The mandate is tailored after that of New Smyrna Beach, one of numerous cities and counties across the state that have adopted mask mandates, some of them with sanctions for violators, some of them without.
Holland, who may have been more surprised by the force of the endorsements rather than the support, thanked the council and said she thought it was “important for us as a governing body that does set policy for this community to state on the record how we feel about this issue. It’s unfortunate that it has taken the political turn and nature it has, as we, from the very beginning of Covid, our response was reliant upon our health department and our emergency management teams that spent an enormous amount of time digging into the data and the details that allowed us to make recommendations and decisions that kept everyone safe as a whole. Our numbers are and were substantially low, and that really is due in part to our residents’ compliance. When the governor shut down the state, our residents stayed home. That was significant Unfortunately, this now has taken another dangerous turn with the numbers we’re seeing. We’re told from our hospital system that the number of patients are getting to a point that they’re concerned, and those are the professionals that are guiding us through these decisions. It’s important that we listen to them, and it’s important that we heed their advice. We do it when we have hurricanes, we do it when we have wildfires.”
Just two members of the public called in to address the mandate, both opposed on what they termed as constitutional grounds. After they spoke, the council took its vote then Palm Coast Fire Chief Jerry Forte addressed the council to thank them for the vote, saying it would also be protective of first responders.
But Bob Snyder, who heads the Flagler Health Department and has been leading a lonely campaign, pushing for mask mandates over the past two weeks, was almost giddy after the vote. “I am thrilled,” he said in a text. “Over the weekend, yesterday, I spoke to each Council member except Eddie, who I figured was out of town….and in conversations with Nick, Jack and Bob—heard their support, political courage and determination to do what is right in putting the breaks on the community spread of COVID 19. I hope that the other 2 cities follow Palm Coast’s move in doing what is best for the safety and health of our community. I am so grateful to the leadership shown by Mayor Holland, each Council member, Matt Morton and Jerry Forte. This public health Officer is smiling tonight!!!”