The Flagler County Commission this morning approved a resolution “strongly encouraging” and “emphatically” urging people to wear masks indoors, where social distancing is not possible. But commissioners, following the sheriff’s lead, explicitly rejected the use of the word “mandate,” both because they say it would not be enforceable and because they don’t want to burden law enforcement with policing the measure.
“There is no way we can ask our sheriff to arrest people or fine people,” Commission Chairman Dave Sullivan said. Sullivan had pushed for a mandate starting earlier this month, but settled for the measure approved today, which would not have gotten other commissioners’ support otherwise.
Last week Palm Coast, Flagler Beach and Bunnell all approved mask mandates. Even though they described the measures as mandates, they also stopped short of including enforcement provisions. Numerous counties and municipalities have passed mandates in the last few weeks, several of them enforceable. Courts in Alachua and Leon counties have rejected challenges to the mandates.
“Even though they used the word mandate, the municipalities also mentioned their intent was not to enforce it,” Flagler County Emergency Management Chief Jonathan Lord told commissioners this morning, so “what you all are saying is basically the same as the cities.”
The commission’s unanimous vote followed a presentation by Lord, who has been an advocate of masks going back months. His presentation included stark statements as he spoke of the total number of reported Covid-19 cases in the state–266,000 as of Sunday. “That’s a 190,000 case increase since your last meeting,” he said. Flagler has a cumulative 493 cases, “286 since your last meeting,” he said, with a positivity rate just under 10 percent in the latest surge locally, but over 10 percent statewide. “Our hospital is operating at a high occupancy rate at this time,” but managing demand, he said. “Our hospital is part of a larger health care system and because of that they do bounce patients” between facilities on an as-needed basis.
Sullivan said the county has had mask requirements in its own buildings for several weeks. He was the only one wearing a mask during the meeting, at least when he was not speaking. “At this point I took my mask off because I literally can’t read the stuff, my glasses are fogging up when I have a mask on,” he said. The commission then voted.
The county’s resolution says in part: “Flagler County emphatically urges all persons to wear face coverings when in indoor locations open to the public or when unable to maintain social distancing from other persons outdoors, excluding household members.” Like the cities’ resolution, the county’s include a list of exemptions, as for those who’d have a health reason not to be masked, for young children, for those exercising, eating or drinking, and so on.
“I think you guys did it right,” Sheriff Rick Staly said through his mask as he addressed the commission. “When you use the word mandate there’s an expectation of enforcement. Even though that’s not the intent of what the cities passed,” he said, that was the result, which “inundated” the 911 center with calls. Staly has made several statements about masks in the past week in attempts to thread the needle between an intensely anti-mask-mandate constituency in the county while still supporting the wearing of masks. He said some of his statements had been “misconstrued.”
“I support the use of masks. I think we’re all adults and we should take care of each other as a community,” he said. “What I do not support is having law enforcement be the mask police,” especially, he said, as it could inflame community-police relations at a time when policing is under scrutiny.
Only one person addressed the commission–Jane Gentile-Youd, the former county commission candidate and perennial critic who, today, had already appeared before the commission to hand out appreciation plaques to several Flagler County Fire Rescue firefighter-paramedics who she said saved her life during a medical episode several months ago. “I only wish that we could possibly have a system where it’s a civil infraction and not a fine. My dream was, a warning,” she said of the mask resolution, with each person so warned handed a free mask, “so they have no excuse.” The sheriff said his troops would be happy to hand out masks if Gentile-Youd paid for them.
The Palm Coast Fire Department today, in partnership with the health department in Flagler, announced it would provide free masks in packets of five to local residents, available for pick up at Fire Station 25, at 1250 Belle Terre Parkway, Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., while supplies last. One person per family will be allowed to come into Fire Station 25 to receive the masks and that person must use hand sanitizer on the outside of the building before entering.
The sheriff said businesses may at any point call in deputies if there’s an issue with an individual–if, for example, a business has a mask requirement and an individual refuses to wear one, and refuses to leave. At that point it’s a “disturbance,” and if the person continues to refuse to leave, then it’s a potential trespassing situation, he said.
Asked about positive case sin his ranks, the sheriff revealed that “in total we’ve had eight to 10 employees with Covid-19. Of course they go home, the transmission seems to be from people they’ve been around who’ve already been diagnosed with Covid-19, living in the same household. At this point it’s been manageable.”
Lord pressed the case for masks as a small measure with substantial benefits as he warned of the consequences of the current surge statewide and locally.
“As the cases go up, and again our numbers are better than other parts of the state, but as the numbers go up,” Lord said, “we’ve already seen what the governor’s done, he’s taken a couple of steps back and shut down bars. So I think our residents and our businesses really do need to heed this warning you’re about to put out, and hopefully you’re going to approve, because we had record numbers again statewide this past weekend. I would not be surprised if the governor has no other option than to start doing more business restrictions again, and I really hope that doe snot occur. The more serious that our residents and businesses take this, and realize the simple act of taking a mask or staying 6 feet away at least from somebody else, can help us not further destroy our economy.”
Nevertheless Commissioner Joe Mullins, as he has repeatedly in the past, sought to downplay the surge and blame what he described as “fanatical” news reports for making the situation seem worse than it is. An opponent of mask mandate, he told a resident on Saturday that “There [are] many that feel we should do a mandatory ordinance making high risk people stay inside and use delivery services. What are your thoughts on this?” He then made a startling statement: “I will work on a mandate to restrict you from coming outside. I want to protect you and I certainly know what’s best.”
There is no such proposal–the county attorney’s office confirmed it–nor has it been discussed at any level of local or state government. Even at the height of the previous surge in April, when Gov. Ron DeSantis enacted a statewide stay-at-home order, the order was, like the commission’s mask resolution today, voluntary.
“Do you have even a tiny clue how absurd your question is and what it suggests?” the resident replied.
In the same thread, County Administrator Jerry Cameron–who wore a mask throughout today’s meeting–wrote: “I will not oppose a decision by my Board to pass such an ordinance, but am not prepared to open up the unintended consequences of such action by recommending such without discussing those consequences. Governments across the State are being sued and subjected to aggressive protest over this issue. At present we are spending tens of thousands of grant dollars to fund public awareness campaigns which are, according to our surveillance, achieving positive results. With the large number of exemptions for compliance it will be difficult to tell who has an exemption and who is in violation. We will have great difficulty with enforcement. The sheriff is understaffed and we just turned down his request for additional deputies due to lack of funding. Next, is what kind of mask? We are now being told by some experts that cloth mask are minimally effective.”