In a first at a local government meeting, two Flagler Beach residents were arrested Thursday evening after defiantly delaying a Flagler Beach City Commission meeting for 12 minutes, refusing to don a mask, in accordance with a city ordinance, and refusing to leave the commission room on their own. They were not arrested for a mask violation, but for trespassing after warnings.
Karen D. Streit, 67, and Michael Scott Streit, 64, residents of Oak Place in Flagler Beach, were charged with the misdemeanor count of trespassing after warning, booked at the Flagler County jail and released the same evening, each on $500 bond.
The city last week renewed its mask ordinance, which explicitly mandates masks “for in-person attendees of city meetings while inside city facilities.” The ordinance forbids entry to anyone not masked. Commissioners themselves, though partitioned by plexiglass, keep their masks on at all times except from time to time when they’re speaking. The Centers for Disease Control and a overwhelming majority of scientists, backed by copious evidence and studies, recommend mask-wearing, primarily to prevent the wearer from infecting others with the coronavirus, but also to provide the wearer some protection.
But mask-wearing has turned into an ideologically-fraught issue and a point of contention in numerous communities, triggering lawsuits. Just this week, a Florida appeals court upheld Palm Beach County’s mask mandate, rejecting the claim that masks infringe on personal freedoms and comparing the requirement to bans on indoor smoking.
The Streits had been sitting at the back of the commission room at City Hall, unmasked before the meeting, when Flagler Beach Police Chief Matthew Doughney approached them discreetly to explain the law and request that they put on a mask. They refused.
All commissioners and the mayor were seated. They waited. “I don’t want to start this meeting because we have some people in the room without masks on,” Commission Chair Jane Mealy said, “and we just renewed our ordinance that says we require masks, or a resolution. So if the people without masks would wait outside until it’s time for them to come in to make their comments, that would be much appreciated.”
City Attorney Drew Smith asked if the television carrying the meeting’s live video was running. It was. Police Capt. Blanchette offered the Straits masks. “Capt. Blanchette, it was nice of you to offer them masks. But they’re not putting them on,” Mealy said. She and her colleagues waited some more. “We have a very long agenda tonight, I’d really appreciate not wasting this time,” Mealy said again. “Not going to start until the room is the way it’s supposed to be.”
“We’re citizens of Flagler Beach,” Scott Strait said as he spoke to the officers. The officers, who handled the situation with remarkable patience and discretion throughout, talked to the Streits as the minutes passed, minute after minute, the commissioners sitting, waiting, the meeting immobilized. Then an officer walked up to Mealy and quietly told her that she would have to ask them to leave. Doughney then whispered something in Mealy’s ear.
Commissioner Eric Cooley, who sits to Mealy’s right, suggested quietly that, as he explained later, “she ask them directly to leave immediately so we could get on with the meeting. My thought was they received direction from police to follow the chair’s directions and they understood the choices. No need to give them any additional bandwidth to be a martyr for whatever point they were trying to make.”
“I’m going to ask one more time that the people without mask, please leave. You have the right to wait outside, to watch the TV, and when it’s time for public comment that you can come back in and tell us what your problem is.”
“We have the right to be in this room as Flagler Beach citizens,” Scott shot back.
“No,” Mealy said, “Flagler Beach citizens have been informed that they must wear a mask in this room.”
“The state has said that the cities, the county, have no right to penalize citizens for being in public places,” he replied.
“We can’t give you a fine. I read the law, too,” Mealy said. She was right: Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has refused to issue a statewide mask mandate, has nevertheless allowed local mandates to remain in place, but disallowed the imposition of fines.
The officers again spoke to the Straits, explained the law and the individuals’ rights–and the chair’s request. “If you do not step outside, you will be arrested,” an officer told them.
“I will not give up my liberty, or freedom,” Scott Streit said.
“Please stand up, sir, and I’m going to arrest you,” the officer said.
Streit said something about “what this government has become,” but complied, while his wife spoke up. “We all know, on Staly’s website,” she said of Sheriff Rick Staly, “it says on his website, it’s an encouragement,” and that a mandate is “unenforceable.” She was correct in so far as enforcing the mandate itself. But she had not read the part where Staly makes clear that people like her were violating the law nevertheless.
While Staly wrote of his objection to becoming the mask police, he also warned: “If a person becomes disruptive on private property over a business asking them to follow their practices to keep everyone safe, it would work like any normal trespass. The person leaves and if they return to cause trouble only then does law enforcement become involved.”
That’s what Flagler Beach police did, after displaying the sort of patience law enforcement generally doesn’t in most lawbreaking situations, let alone in a situation where two people are holding up the official business of a government. The Straits were finally led out in handcuffs.
“I apologize to everyone else who’s trying to be very cooperative,” Mealy said. “Thank you very much. So. Sorry, that’s not a great way to start a meeting, but thank you for all being very patient. So now we will call the meeting to order. This is a regular meeting of the Flagler Beach City Commission, it is Thursday, January 28, 2021, and it is 5:42.”
The couple had delayed the meeting 12 minutes.
In July 2020, Scott Streit had appeared before the commission to speak of his concern regarding a water line servicing Oak Place, and the need for a hydrant there. There appears to have been no other public interactions between the Straits and commissioners. But they do have an unsettling history with the city.
“They have been trespassed from City Hall before,” Mealy said in an interview. “They are very abusive of city staff, often over their water bill, the way it gets paid, and if they’re late they don’t want to pay a late fee.” Karen Streit “gets verbally very abusive of staff, and that shouldn’t be. You can have a calm disagreement, but she gets verbally very abusive, so she has been trespassed, I believe by Larry” Newsom, the late city manager. “So they’ve got a long history with the city.”
“They were asked numerous times to put on a mask, they were given a mask by the police captain and they absolutely refused to do so and they’re now residing at the Green Roof Inn,” Flagler Beach Commissioner Rick Belhumeur said during a break of the commission meeting. He described the Streits before their arrest as “just sitting there, defiantly sitting there and not wearing a mask.”
“My perception of this behavior is very different than many on the board since I work in retail,” Cooley said after the meeting. He owns the 7-Eleven on South Oceanshore Boulevard, in the heart of the city, where he was among the first of county businesses to don protective gear and put up plexiglass, very early in the pandemic. “I have a high exposure to this type of interaction as there is a segment of the population that believes it is ok to verbally abuse folks in service industries which I work in.”
Now, the treatment has glaringly spilled into public forums: both county commission meetings and Palm Coast City Council meetings have been disrupted by people who have refused to wear masks, to the point of causing Palm Coast to consider stepping up security measures considerably. But Cooley sees it as more of an acceleration of a trend than something new.
“The climate and attitudes directed at elected officials has eroded noticeably over the last three years I have been a commissioner,” he said. “Folks like what we dealt with today are dangerous. Anyone who is so out of control that they will not comply with law enforcement orders, that an arrest is the only solution, need to be addressed. We cannot make the best decisions possible for the citizens when we feel threatened or have potentially volatile situations happening during meetings. I thought Jane and our police handled the situation with utmost professionalism. It is unfortunate that something as simple as keeping others safe has become such a charade to some. That is why my mask says, ‘We are all in this together.'”
Mealy said she wasn’t worried about her personal security “as far as any guns or anything like that,” she said. “I was upset that people would be willing to spread an ever increasing disease, even though I’ve had one vaccination. But there’s all these new variants out there. And I don’t think it’s fair when he walked out,” she said of Scott, referring to his statement decrying citizens submitting to the commission’s treatment. “It’s incumbent on him to be concerned about his fellow citizens, and obviously he isn’t.”
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