A dozen or so anti-mask militants held up the Flagler County Commission meeting for 30 minutes this morning as they refused to comply with a county-building requirement to wear masks inside the meeting chamber, and Commission Chairman Dave Sullivan, with striking resolve, refused to start the meeting without their compliance.
The group wanted to address the commission to dispute health department guidelines about mask-wearing and call for the firing of the Flagler Health Department’s Bob Snyder and Dr. Stephen Bickel, who the group claims, falsely, are calling for business shut-downs and imposing medically inaccurate requirements. Snyder corrected the record later in the meeting. (“I took the high road and refuse to engage with these folks,” he said in an email after the meeting.)
“In this county, we must be doing something right based on the sobering statistic that I am about to share,” Snyder told commissioners. “A National Geographic article from a week ago, that tracks positive cases and deaths by each county and state in the nation, showed that on a per capita basis, as measured by cases per 10,000 people, Flagler County has the lowest case rate in the State at 125.1 per 10,000 people and the 3rd lowest death rate per 100,000 people at 15. A remarkable outcome such as this does not occur by accident. Absolutely Not! It takes our entire community of 113,000 to make this happen. Just about everyone has played a role in this response. This good outcome takes all of us to achieve including every resident who complies with common sense, simple, inexpensive acts like mask wearing, social distancing, avoiding large crowds, businesses and restaurants who ended up supporting mask wearing campaigns like the County’s Pledge to Prevent and the resolutions passed by our three major cities. Oh, and maybe just a little bit of luck!”
But Snyder made his statement not before several of the group members made their points, mask-less, in three-minute increments, after what had turned into a ringless “circus,” in Snyder’s own description. (See Snyder’s full statement at the foot of the article.
“Here’s what’s going to happen. I’m going to call for a 15-minute adjournment, at which time we’ll reconvene,” Sullivan said, as members of the group refused to mask up or leave the room despite Sheriff Rick Staly’s entreaties.
At one point an agitated Commissioner Joe Mullins attempted to speak “as a citizen,” but since he was sitting as a commissioner, Sullivan did not recognize him. Mullins threatened to leave the meeting. Sullivan told him he was just adding to the confusion.
“I can do one other item that between forcing people out and forcing you to go to jail,” Sullivan said. “We’ll just clear the entire room and we’ll have the meeting with commissioners and witnesses only.”
Members of the group yelled out, claiming Sullivan was forgetting the Constitution, that this was the United States and they had rights, though they would have been barred entry had they attempted to go in any trial or appellate courtroom in the state without a mask on. As they persisted, Sullivan recessed the meeting. “We’re adjourned, and at this point I want the room cleared,” he said. It took a while for the group to walk outside the room but it finally did, standing in the hallway by the door, where they were still violating the county-building rule on mask-wearing.
Thirty minutes later Sullivan reconvened the meeting. There’d been a compromise. “What I’m going to do at this point,” Sullivan said after the Pledge and a moment of silence, “is, with the consent of the other commissioners, we’re going to ask the group that’s here concerning masks to come forward, got three minutes of time each to explain why you’re here. At which point, when you’re done with what you want to say, I’m going to ask you to leave.”
Mark Phillips, a Flagler County resident, was first to speak. “Since the beginning of covid the situation has been grossly mishandled, in my opinion,” Phillips said. “Beaches were closed against the directives of the state Health Department. Parks were closed against the directives of the state Health Department. And businesses were shut down, which is a violation of our constitution. Right there is enough on its face to call for all elected officials that went along with these unlawful measures to be voted out. When citizens of Flagler questioned their elected representatives, they were told, we are following the recommendations of our health officials. So we have elected officials letting non-elected appointees make policy–illegal policy at that.”
Almost every sentence in Phillips’s statement so far was false. Parks and beaches were not closed against state health department directives. The state, following Ron DeSantis’s approach, did not order beach and park closures, but left it up to local communities to decide for themselves whether to close either. “I think it’s important to allow that if the local communities want to do it, to be able to do it,” DeSantis said at a press conference in mid-March, two weeks before he issued a statewide stay-at-home order. Flagler Beach and the county briefly closed beaches at the end of March and part of April. That lasted barely three weeks. They’ve been open since, including over the July 4 weekend, despite what by then had been an ongoing surge of covid cases statewide and in Flagler that overwhelmed April’s figures.
In April, DeSantis’s stay-home order included directives to close bars, gyms and movie theaters, and to limit restaurants to take-out service. The local health department and local elected officials had nothing to do with those business shut-downs, nor did local “unelected” officials recommend them, though local officials such as Mullins repeatedly and irresponsibly shifted the blame onto local officials, rousing militants to oppose the order. There was nothing “unconstitutional” or illegal about the order: state and federal law recognize the authority of elected officials at all levels to declare states of emergency in well-defined circumstances, whether in cases of natural or man-made disasters, or in cases of public health emergencies. While governments “unbounded authority in the exercise of its police powers in an emergency,” a federal judge ruled in a June 3 order on Alachua County’s mask mandate, courts, including the judge in the Alachua case and the U.S. Supreme Court on two occasions–in May and in July–rejected challenges to such state-imposed restrictions.
Phillips also misunderstands how government at every level works. Elected officials in almost every instance, whether they are voting on a zoning change, a tax increase or decrease, an environmental-protection ordinance or a lease agreement, either follow or reject the recommendations of their administration. That’s what their administration is for: to analyze issues and find the best way to follow local policy. Overwhelmingly, elected officials follow their staff’s recommendations, even when making policy: maverick initiatives aside, most policies are based on staff analyses and, just as routinely, on administrators’ and managers’ recommendations. Local cities and the county commission in the covid emergency have deferred to emergency management chiefs and other experts in the field, including the local health department, though the health department is not a branch of local government: it’s part of the state executive branch, ultimately under the control of Gov. DeSantis.
In Flagler, and the health department aside, the director with the most sway and say on local emergencies is Jonathan Lord, the emergency management chief, whose guidance and reputation through hurricane emergencies and the covid emergencies have won near-universal praise from every local government and public safety agency. The commission has occasionally diverged from his recommendations–Sullivan aside, the county commission has been least enthusiastic about imposing a mask mandate, and in fact refused to do so–but only when political motives have scrambled Lord’s more scientifically sound signals.
Phillips went on to speak of the effects of the covid crisis and shut-downs on businesses. He claimed that overdoses are up 54 percent over last year, and that there had been an increase in alcohol and domestic abuse, while local officials are focused on “mask mandates and pushing false health information to the public.” Phillips did not cite sources for his statements, which are false or grossly overstated. While 2020 data is incomplete, indications are that overdoses are up, but a preliminary analysis issued by the White House puts that figure nationwide at 11.4 percent. There was a 54 percent increase in overdoses, but that was in 2019, before the pandemic, and it was in South Dakota only. In Flagler County, the sheriff last month reported that there’d been a 2 percent increase in domestic abuse cases when compared to the previous year.
Phillips then went on to decry mask mandates and “skewed” facts. “What we do know though is masks don’t work,” he said categorically–a categorically false statement, as innumerable studies have been indicating for months. (See factual information here, here, here, here and here.) Phillips then claimed the mask “insanity” is the result of a nation sickened “from socialism, communism and Marxism raising its ugly face, and I’ll be damned if it’s coming here to Flagler County.”
At one point, citing a recent non-peer-reviewed study, he said: “Are you ready for this? You have one in 19 million chance of dying from covid,” a flatly inaccurate statement that can be checked against today’s figures: as of today, with 190,000 people in the United States dead from Covid, an American this year had a 1 in 1,842 chance of dying from the disease–but far higher odds for those 65 and older.
“Facts do still matter,” Phillips then said, calling for the resignation of Bickel and Snyder for “recklessly spreading false information.”
Those who followed him were in much the same vein, some of them claiming that they were “fighting to get our children into schools”–also a falsehood: Flagler County schools opened on Aug. 24, giving parents three options, one of them in-person instruction at school campuses–or claiming that local governments were responsible for business and outdoors restrictions.
In fact, Bickel since spring has been arguing that the choice between health and the economy is a false one. He has argued that shutdowns were made necessary in spring only as a last resort to curb runaway infections, and has since argued that shutdowns can and must be prevented–but only through simple measures by individuals (mask-wearing, hand-washing, social distancing) and ample funding for public health to manage contact tracing and contain any outbreak.
Darlene Maria Darcy claimed residents were told, referring to the pandemic and shutdowns, that “this would be two weeks to one month,” though seven months later the masks, the temperature checks and other restrictions continue. Darcy was right about her first claim: the original shutdown was intended to prevent hospitals from being overrun. She was inaccurate about her second claim: President Trump’s fanciful claim that covid would simply “disappear” aside, no medical or public health official said that the virus would be conquered absent a vaccine–a search that continues, and that may bear fruit by later this year or early next year.
So went the comments before the commission, which Sullivan limited to five as they showed little variation from brews of misinformation, social media memes and alternative facts.
The speakers done, and Snyder done later in the meeting, each commissioner in turn took a moment to commend Snyder, including Mullins. “If me wearing a mask will save someone else, then I don’t have a selfish bone in my body,” he said, “then that’s what we have to do as a community.”
“I fully support you and Dr. Bickel,” Commissioner Donald O’Brien said, making his support explicit, as others did, in a sharp rebuff to the two men’s critics. “It’s a sad day when we have to politicize the department of health, and I’m embarrassed about that. But I can tell you, this commissioner is behind what you’re doing.” Commissioners Greg Hansen, Charlie Ericksen and Sullivan did likewise.
The commission then turned to its own Lord, the emergency management chief, for an update.
Flagler Health Department Administrator Bob Snyder’s Statement to the Flagler County Commission This Morning:
The Department of Health in Flagler County is comprised of 56 dedicated staff, not including the additional 27 to assist with the COVID 19 response, who quietly do their daily jobs providing 35 different public health services to our community. They perform above and beyond especially when disasters strike like hurricanes when we operate the SpNs and turn the Rymfire Gym into a medical unit for the most vulnerable in the County and now, taking on lead roles in response to COVID 19 and working real hard to reduce the transmission of the virus. We have partnered alongside other first responders……Emergency Management, EMS and Fire Rescue, hospital and long term care staff, all health care workers, essential service workers, government leaders—County and City, the business community, school district and the media through Flagler Broadcasting, the Palm Coast Observer, News Journal and Flagler Live to communicate public health measures and the many indicators that we track.
From the beginning of this public health crisis, we placed a priority on the availability of community testing, case investigation, contact tracing, rapid testing, working with our media partners to inform and educate and assess all 72 congregate care facilities on infection control best practices and management of COVID patients. Dr. Bickel has especially espoused the connection between mitigating the virus as the key strategy for reopening the economy and business, so that future lockdowns can be avoided …. In this county, we must be doing something right based on the sobering statistic that I am about to share. A National Geographic article from a week ago, that tracks positive cases and deaths by each County and State in the nation, showed that on a per capita basis, as measured by cases per 10,000 people, Flagler County has the lowest case rate in the State at 125.1 per 10,000 people and the 3rd lowest death rate per 100,000 people at 15. A remarkable outcome such as this does not occur by accident. Absolutely Not! It takes our entire community of 113,000 to make this happen. Just about everyone has played a role in this response. This good outcome takes all of us to achieve including every resident who complies with common sense, simple, inexpensive acts like mask wearing, social distancing, avoiding large crowds, businesses and restaurants who ended up supporting mask wearing campaigns like the County’s Pledge to Prevent and the resolutions passed by our 3 major Cities. Oh, and maybe just a little bit of luck!
We have recently experienced good news about decrease in cases, less hospitalizations and emergency room visits related to COVID 19. This is hopeful and we have been trending in the right direction. But, we are not out of the woods yet until a safe and effective vaccine is broadly distributed. We still anticipate occasional spikes in activity, like the one the last 5 days. This was expected with the return of traditional classes in our schools and sure enough during the last 2 weeks 20+ students and school district staff have been isolated as positive cases and numerous individuals have been identified as close contacts and now in quarantine. Also, we have seen a spike in cases at 3 long term care facilities, which is uncharacteristic for Flagler County. Comparatively speaking, we have been spared the suffering and high death counts in congregate care facilities in other Florida counties.
In addition to occasional upticks, we have flu season right around the corner and Hurricane season reaching its peak, so now is not the time to be complacent but still a time of hope and comfort knowing that together we obviously know what to do and deep down as community, we have taken this pandemic very seriously. So, we just have to hang in there a few more months. We are now planning for the vaccine administration phase and meet with our partner Jonathan Lord and his team on Friday to share best practices for deployment of the lifesaving vaccine.