The Flagler County government administration this morning ended the masking requirement inside government facilities, recommending masking instead when in the presence of others indoors. The County Commission also repealed a resolution that had recommended mask-wearing countywide, “because it no longer applies to today’s world,” in the words of Emergency Management Chief Jonathan Lord, who recommended both actions.
“This morning while we were all sitting in here,” Lord said, “the governor also publicly announced that he is going to invalidate all local restrictions anyway, within the next month or so.” Speaking to commissioners this morning, he added: “The big point I want to make is, Covid is not over, but we’re at a different place than we were back when you did that resolution, than we were even a month ago. The health department has done an amazing job with their campaign.”
“Our game plan,” Lord said, “is to change from masks required to masks encouraged or recommended within our facilities.” The language would be in sync with the state Surgeon General’s statement last week: due to widespread availability (rather than acceptance), fully vaccinated individuals don’t have to wear face masks or avoid social and recreational gatherings except in indoor, large public gatherings.
Palm Coast government announced last week that it was rescinding its own mask requirements. Flagler Beach government said it would revoke its citywide mandate, but not the mask requirement inside its facilities–not yet.
Health Department spokesperson Gretchen Smith said the moves away from mask requirements was “something that we saw is inevitable. But as Jonathan said, Covid is not over. Last week we had 15 people in the hospital with Covid. We had been down as low as like two or three at one point, we have 11 this morning in the hospital with Covid and our case rates, we’re still seeing about between 13 and 15 cases a day,” with a positivity rate more than double where it should be for comfort. “So we’re not out of the woods.” She added that if people “feel nervous about not wearing masks, then it’s time to get vaccinated.”
Flagler County tallied 189 new cases of Covid in the past two weeks, still a very high number, and 12 people are currently hospitalized at AdventHealth Palm Coast.
The county’s emergency management division, which has been an equal partner with the health department since the emergency began, will be retrenching its role, at least with the health department. Lord compared it to the days after a hurricane emergency when roles are redesignated.
In Flagler, 33 percent of the population has completed its vaccine series and 45 percent have had at least one shot. Among adults, the proportion of those with at least one shot is 53 percent–well short of herd or community immunity, which is closer to 80 percent, but that figure has been reached for those 65 and over, who are most vulnerable to complication and death from the virus. Flagler has lost 111 residents to the virus so far. Among them, 12 were under 65. Of the 401 residents who have been hospitalized because of the virus, 155, or 39 percent, were younger than 65, including 14 who were 24 or younger.
Some 7,130 Flagler County residents are confirmed to have had covid, and therefore have a measure of immunity. But it would be inaccurate to add that number to the number of those who have had a vaccine because those who have had covid may also have been vaccinated (Commissioner Joe Mullins this morning revealed that he’s had both): it is in fact the Centers for Disease Control’s recommendation that they should be vaccinated. Officials, including locally, have attempted to manipulate the immunity percentages by simply lumping covid totals with vaccine totals and dividing that by the local population, generating a false percentage.
City Commissioner Jane Mealy addressed the county commission too, starting her comments by showing the recent chart that the CDC issued on who should wear masks and where. She issued words of caution–about not becoming overconfident with feelings of safety, considering the spiking numbers in some states, but also about local governments’ limited roles regarding each other.
“So you can make all the rules you want for the unincorporated part of this county, but you cannot tell Flagler Beach what to do,” Mealy told commissioners. So when Commissioner Mullins over and over and over and over, tells us we have to have July 4, You can tell what it does to me. We cannot have July 4. We cannot have 40 or 50,000 people on A1A in the middle of a pandemic, which is not over. You can have it out at the Fairgrounds, you can have it at the airport because you can spread people out. You’ve all been to July 4 In Flagler Beach. It is not spread out.” She added, her tone leaving no room for interpretation: “So I’m glad you’re doing what you’re doing, that you’re being reasonable, that you listen to your staff, but don’t tell us what to do.”
The Flagler Beach City Commission decided in March that while it would gradually resume events, it would not host its usual July 4 festivities–parade and fireworks–though the city still expects to be a magnet for visitors that day. The city’s decision drew some rebukes by the likes of Mullins, who has often transgressed local governments’ cautions and official positions during the emergency, including Flagler Beach’s decision not to hold bigger events.
With the motions before them, commissioners took the opportunity to sum up their thoughts on mask requirements and the next steps, at times veering from reasonable to polemical. In his first statement, before Mealy spoke, Mullins sounded unusually cogent and measured, commending the commission’s steps and calling emergency management and the health department “amazing.”
Mullins was back to his bitterer norms after Mealy spoke, contradicting what he’d said earlier about government and, reading from a prepared statement–or something cribbed from the internet–about how, in 2018, “government destroyed public confidence with the covid pandemic” with “unreasonable mandates and total disruption of American life.” He then added: “sounds familiar?” He attacked Dr. Anthony Fauci, the immunologist and director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, falsely claiming that Fauci “intentionally misled the public” by stating early in the pandemic that masks were not necessary. As innumerable fact-checking organizations have reported, Fauci’s March 8, 2020 statement pre-dated the CDC’s guidance on universal masking and was spoken at a time when public health officials across the country, including in Flagler, were critically short on personal protection equipment, which was being reserved for health care workers. Mullins, whose contempt for fact can be reflexive, was himself politicizing the matter again this morning even as he decried sources that “politicize the crisis and manipulated the public.” He continued with a series of falsehoods (“the number of businesses killed by the virus may exceed the number of people killed,” though six times as many people have died than businesses shut down), as if the sharp recovery of the last few months never took place. He then again pressed for large events.
“I really respect everybody in the United States has the will and the brainpower to decide whether they want to wear a mask or not,” Commissioner Greg Hansen said, “or whether they want to stay home or not or whether they want to go to a football game or not.” He said there’s been “a lot of fear” created, and that the virus “shouldn’t be something to be afraid of but something to be careful with.” (As of today almost 577,000 people in the United States–close to the entire death toll from the four years of Civil War–have died from the disease, and 3.22 million have died worldwide.)
“One good thing that might result from lessening the doing away with mandatory mask requirements is to get people who have had the vaccine some feeling that–I did the right thing. And I got the vaccine, and therefore now I don’t need to wear a mask,” Commissioner Dave Sullivan said. “The other side of that is, it may encourage people who haven’t gotten the vaccine to get it because there was a benefit in the people who got the vaccine and getting themselves in that situation.”
Commissioner Andy Dance complimented the professionalism and steadiness of the health department’s vaccination campaign, which he witnessed last week at one of the vaccination sites. Flagler Beach City Commissioner Rick Belhumeur had joined vaccine volunteers at a different site last week. Both commissioners drew praise from Smith, who said their presence “showed that people cared.”
The commission over a year ago locked down the Government Services Building and suspended commission meetings before gradually reopening facilities and resuming meetings with masking required upon entering the GSB and attending meetings. The mask requirement in facilities was a mandate issued by County Administrator Jerry Cameron. He said he was revoking that requirement today.
“I can tell you as of this morning as of actually this weekend, based on the number of people who want the vaccine, and the number of vaccines available, there is an overabundance of all three vaccines in Flagler County at this moment, primarily in the private sector, and all of our pharmacies.”
“Covid-19 is not over,” Lord said. “The big lift now is for our public health department to make this a massive public health campaign to encourage those that have been hesitant with the vaccines to get the vaccine. But nonetheless the vaccine is readily available, 100 percent of your employees and the constitutional officers employees, and the school board employees that work in your facilities, have been offered multiple times the opportunity to get the vaccine.” He did not say what proportion of employees took the vaccine, however.